King Yates

King Yates, with his former attorney, Stephanie Bond, during earlier proceedings in Pima County Superior Court, says he still plans to plead not guilty.

A Tucson man awaiting trials in connection with the deaths of his wife and cellmate was ruled incompetent Monday to assist in his defense.

King Yates has been acting as his own lawyer, after firing his two previous attorneys. His erratic behavior and refusal to follow courtroom procedure since taking over his own defense prompted Pima County Superior Court Judge Howard Fell to order a repeat competency exam in July.

Yates is facing two charges of first-degree murder in connection with the November 2016 shooting death of his wife, Cassandra Yates, and the April 2017 asphyxiation death of his Pima County jail cellmate, Branden Roth. He’s also facing two felony charges of prohibited possession of a firearm and a felony trespassing charge.

Yates was declared competent at the time of both incidents following competency exams in April.

But in the months that followed, Yates made repeated claims about being poisoned in the jail, exhibited mood swings in court hearings and refused to follow Fell’s instructions on filing motions and courtroom behavior. Yates has a history of mental illness and a past prescription for antipsychotic drugs, but no current prescription, Fell wrote in his order for the repeat exam.

In September, Yates’ upcoming trial was vacated, after he refused to meet with doctors who were sent to the jail to conduct the competency exam. During the hearing, Yates’ advisory counsel, Bobbi Berry, suggested Yates undergo an unorthodox competency evaluation that would include interviews with his two previous lawyers. Berry said she had concerns that through Yates’ extensive history with competency exams and the criminal justice system, he had learned how to mirror language and exhibit behaviors that may not give doctors the full scope of his competency issues.

In the most recent exam, Yates was evaluated by Dr. Stephen Streitfeld and Gary Perrin, who both said Yates was not competent to proceed and that medication would likely assist in Yates’ restoration to competency.

Fell ordered Yates to participate in the Pima County jail’s Restoration to Competency program, which he indicated in court that Yates had successfully completed in the past. Fell asked Yates to cooperate and to consider taking medication, if the program recommended it, in the hopes of getting the case back on track.

Deputy Pima County Attorney Jonathan Mosher noted that the state was disheartened to see that Streitfeld and Perrin didn’t use any structured, valid tool to evaluate Yates for malingering, when a person fakes symptoms to get out of something he or she doesn’t want to do.

Fell said Yates would be evaluated for malingering during the program.

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Yates told the court that after the evaluation and after he was restored to competency, he was looking forward to going to trial.

“I’m still pleading innocent,” Yates said.

Berry will remain as Yates’ advisory counsel but was temporarily appointed Yates’ attorney of record so she could gain access to discovery materials from Yates’ previous lawyers and continue to work on the case while he’s restored to competency.

Fell set a status conference for Dec. 17 to determine if Yates is complying with any recommended medication through the competency program. If he is not, the court will decide how to proceed.

A status conference was also set for Jan. 7 to review Yates’ competency status. Yates remains in jail on a $2 million bond.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt