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Court to decide if driver in fatal accident is competent for trial


The battle is still raging in a Phoenix federal court over whether Peter Lee Charley is competent to stand trial for his involvement in the October 2017 death of a 15-year-old Kayenta student.

He was charged with second-degree murder in the death of McKenzie Tsosie, allegedly striking her with his car as she was getting off her school bus at 4:40 p.m. on Oct. 31.

According to court records, Charley was driving his vehicle at a high speed when he came upon the school bus. Instead of stopping, he drove around it, hitting Tsosie as she was heading home. He then continued on his way. Among those who saw Tsosie hit by the car was the school bus driver, who happened to be Tsosie’s father.

Charley, 65, did not get far because another witness to the accident was Sgt. Bob Martin, an Arizona state police officer, who was headed home. He turned his vehicle around and stopped Charley before he got two miles away. In the car with him was a woman in the passenger seat.

Martin also said he saw that Charley’s zipper was down and his penis was exposed. Martin said he could also smell the odor of intoxicating liquor coming from inside the car. Charley later posted a breath alcohol level of 0.15 on a portable breath alcohol machine, nearly twice the legal limit. In March of 2018, the court asked three psychologists to evaluate Charley to determine whether he was competent to stand trial.

All three released evaluations saying they did not think he was competent at that time to stand trial. All three, however, said they had problems coming to this conclusion because of lack of information about Charley’s life before his arrest and how well he was able to cope with his disabilities.

Court records said Charley is deaf and has vision problems but the prosecution contends that Charley’s problems are due to an inability to communicate and do not indicate any underlying mental illness that would make him unfit to stand trial. Nancy Eldridge, the psychologist chosen by Charley’s defense team, said she talked to Charley’s family as well as a close friend and noted his ability to shop on his own and do basic chores as well as manage money and travel independently.

While she felt he was not competent to stand trial, she said she was unsure if providing him with more education to deal with his deafness would make him able to aid in his defense. Bureau of Prisons psychologist Evan DuBois said lack of information on Charley’s ability to function before his arrest complicated DuBois’ ability to come up with a complete evaluation.

He found, however, Charley has an unspecified disorder which “impacts his ability to learn and recall information.” He also said there was “little evidence” to indicate that he could be restored to competency any time in the future. The third psychologist, David Feldman, said he also looked to others to determine how functional Charley was before his arrest. He said he also talked to Charley about how he lived his life. He said he also did not think Charley was competent to stand trial and added that he was uncertain as to whether he could learn enough to be competent in the future.

As a result, government prosecutors are now asking the judge hearing this case to determine himself whether Charley is competent enough to stand trial and have asked for permission to call people who knew Charley before his arrest to testify about how well he was able to live independently before his arrest.

Charley’s defense team has opposed this, saying basically his ability to deal with his disabilities before his arrest does not have anything to do with his current competency to stand trial. The government attorneys said it was important for the court to take its own testimony because Charley’s deafness and lack of formal language skills, including the inability to use sign language, made it difficult for the three psychologists to evaluate him properly.

The prosecution wants to call Betty Howley, Marie Nephew and Mary Yazzie, all of whom have known him for decades, to testify about how he functioned in daily life before his arrest. They also want to call Virgil Smith, a tribal police officer, who interacted with him on discussions about a vehicle collision and some banking issues. They also planned to call FBI agents who interacted with Charley after the October incident to show that Charley understood why he was being arrested and the consequences he faced. There has been no indication of when a formal decision on Charley’s competency will be made.

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