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Murder suspect could be faking mental illness


By JOHN BURNETT

Tribune-Herald staff writer

A psychologist appointed by the court to evaluate a double-homicide suspect and determine his fitness to stand trial said Monday he believed the defendant is either faking or exaggerating symptoms of mental illness.

Dr. Tom Cunningham testified in Hilo that he believes Sean Ivan Masa Matsumoto is “malingering” in the hope of being found unfit for trial. The 34-year-old Matsumoto is accused of the Feb. 11 shotgun slayings of his 45-year-old girlfriend, Rhonda Lynn Alohalani Ahu, and her 74-year-old mother, Elaine Ahu, in their home in Hilo’s Waiakea Houselots neighborhood.

Cunningham and psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Bisset found Matumoto fit for trial, although Bisset testified on Oct. 18 that Matsumoto “is somewhat impaired by his paranoia toward the world” but “has an adequate understanding of the proceedings, of the charges against him, legal processes and so on.

A third examiner, psychiatrist Dr. Henry Yang, testified in October that Matsumoto suffers from “substance-induced psychotic disorder secondary to amphetamine abuse” that would render him unfit for trial.

Cunningham said he spent about 30 minutes on May 29 attempting to interview Matsumoto at Hawaii Community Correctional Center. He described the interview as “shorter than usual because he (Matsumoto) was not fully cooperative.”

“He was angry and was not answering all my questions,” Cunningham said. “He was very cynical about some of the things I was asking about the legal system. He was complaining a lot, saying he was set up. It was just difficult to get through the type of question I would normally ask in this type of examination.”

Matsumoto sat at the defense table with his eyes closed during much of the hearing, although he would occasionally shake his head in apparent disagreement with Cunningham’s testimony.

Matsumoto’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jeff Ng, questioned Cunningham’s analysis, saying Matsumoto “has a long history of mental health treatment, …was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward at Hilo Medical Center for an acute psychotic episode about 11 years ago, … has in the past received psychotropic medication” and “has symptoms consistent with paranoid psychosis.”

“Based on all those factors, you still believe he’s malingering?” Ng asked.

“Yes, I do,” Cunningham said.

“And because he’s malingering, you feel he’s fit to proceed?”

“Not because he’s malingering, but I believe he’s fit to proceed.”

Under cross-examination by Deputy Prosecutor Darien Nagata, Cunningham said he “did continue to gather information about the case in other ways.”

“I went back several times to HCCC to review his records and to interview staff there that work with him,” the psychologist said. “… I learned that he had not been reporting serious symptoms of mental disorder, that he was not being kept in the unit for the most impaired inmates that needed medical or mental health attention. I was told that he was able to make his needs known to the staff very clearly and that he was socializing easily and well with the other inmates, not giving the appearance of being seriously mentally ill.

“… He was not presenting a management problem and did not appear to behave in a way that would suggest lack of fitness to proceed. He had never been diagnosed as mentally retarded or mentally deficient.”

Cunningham said his primary diagnoses of Matsumoto, in addition to malingering, are crystal methamphetamine dependency, alcohol abuse and cannabis abuse.

“I think the defendant could best be described as a drug abuser and that’s his primary reason for mental health problems that he’s experienced,” he said. “He hasn’t always told the same story about the extent that he has used drugs or when he has used drugs, but he has used a great many different ones.”

Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura set a hearing for closing arguments by attorneys on Matsumoto’s fitness for Jan. 17 at 10:30 a.m. Matumoto is in custody at HCCC without bail.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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