The man charged with the killing of 25-year-old Tom Coombes (inset) at the Roy Clements Treeway last week is set to appear in court this morning. Photo / NZME
An Auckland man accused of fatally stabbing university student Tom Coombes on a Mt Albert walkway last year continues to show signs of psychosis, including hearing voices and thinking that the television is whispering to him.
That was the testimony today from three psychiatrists as a daylong hearing was held in the High Court at Auckland to determine if the 24-year-old murder defendant, who continues to have name suppression, is fit to stand trial.
Justice Paul Davison indicated he will not issue an immediate decision.
The defendant has been receiving treatment at a lockdown psychiatric facility since May 2022, when he was arrested four days after Coombes was found stabbed along the Roy Clements Treeway, close to Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland.
A passer-by held Coombes’ hand as he bled to death.
Coombes, 25, had been walking home from university, where he studied photography. The former Massey High School student was also a keen surfer who lived at Bethells Beach, where he also served as a volunteer firefighter.
The defendant attended today’s hearing via audio-video feed from the Mason Clinic, with a hunched posture and sometimes rocking in his seat as he sat between two staff members. He hasn’t yet attended any hearings for the case in person and hasn’t entered a plea due to the unresolved fitness to stand trial issue.
He has been on two anti-psychotic medications since arriving at the facility and has shown improvements since then, but his symptoms wax and wane, the mental health professionals said.
“I clearly remember how he was when he was first admitted,” Dr Katherine Moyles testified, describing him as having been “entirely distracted” by his own internal processes. “Much of what he said to me did not make sense.”
But in more recent meetings, he was “quite engageable” and could discuss his situation “in a way he was completely unable to do” at the start, she said. She noted that he still gets distracted by his own internal processes but it is less often and he is able to refocus when she brings it to his attention.
“He did tell us that he has again experienced hearing voices,” she said, but the frequency has been reduced to the point where it’s not daily.
Moyles, as well as colleagues Dr Krishna Pillai and Dr Craig Immelman, seemed to be in agreement that the defendant is possibly well enough to enter a plea. But there were differing opinions about whether he would be well enough to participate in a lengthy trial, if that was to be the result of the plea.
Immelman noted that the defendant’s schizophrenic symptoms could increase without much notice if he is put in a stressful situation such as a trial. He expressed “significant concerns” with the defendant’s ability to give evidence and expressed doubts he would be able to participate meaningfully in a lengthy trial even if he opted not to testify.
“He interprets things in a way … which are not connected to reality,” he said.
Pillai described the courthouse as an “untested environment” for the patient and said that even if each day was reduced to five or six hours “it would be a big effort for him”. But he also noted that the patient’s medication has the potential to continue improving his mental health for the next 10 months before it levels off.
None of the psychiatrists discussed the specific allegations against the defendant.
Crown prosecutor Mark Harborow and defence lawyer Julie-Anne Kincade KC seemed to agree that one compromise the judge could consider would be to allow the defendant to enter a plea now and reassess his fitness to stand trial in 10 months, after the effects of his anti-psychotic medication has plateaued.
Entering a plea would allow for the next stage of psychiatric assessments: whether he is eligible for a defence of not guilty by reason of insanity. It is a different process than determining if someone is fit to stand trial.
The Crown and the defence were in firm agreement that his February 2024 trial date is looking increasingly unlikely given the unresolved mental health issues.
Coombes’ family attended today’s hearing, as they have for earlier hearings in which the defendant didn’t participate. They shed tears after the hearing ended and the video link to the Mason Clinic was turned off.
Loved ones have described Coombes previously as someone who had been living a “happy and beautiful life” before it was cruelly cut short.
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.