A Northern California judge has ruled that a former college student is not mentally competent to stand trial for a series of stabbings that killed two people and terrorized the community around the University of California, Davis, this spring.
Judge Samuel McAdam of Yolo County Superior Court concluded this week that the former student, Carlos Reales Dominguez, 20, was severely mentally ill and must be treated in a state psychiatric facility before murder charges against him could proceed.
The series of stabbings shocked residents of Davis, a city of about 70,000 people west of Sacramento, this year. Killed were David Breaux, 50, a local pacifist who slept on a park bench near downtown Davis, and Karim Abou Najm, 20, a computer science major at U.C. Davis and the son of a professor at the university. Another person, Kimberlee Guillory, also was stabbed but survived.
Mr. Reales Dominguez has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder, but his mental condition has been an issue since the outset of the case. At a court appearance in May, his public defender, Daniel Hutchinson, urgently requested a competency hearing, saying he did not believe that Mr. Reales Dominguez’s mental fitness met the legal standard.
California law requires that criminal defendants possess mental competence to understand the legal proceedings against them, grasp their place in those proceedings and assist their attorneys in their own defense. While not the same as an insanity defense, a finding of mental incompetence requires that criminal proceedings be paused until a defendant receives sufficient treatment to become competent to stand trial.
The judge’s decision came after weeks of legal debate over Mr. Reales Dominguez’s mental fitness.
During a hearing before a jury, classmates and friends of the defendant described a sudden and troubling spiral that seemed to occur months after he arrived as a shy but clean-cut and promising freshman at U.C. Davis in 2020.
Roommates and fellow students testified that the biological sciences major appeared to have suffered a breakdown in the spring of 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic — withdrawing socially, ceasing to bathe or often eat, lapsing at times into an almost catatonic state and confiding that he was hearing voices.
His friends said that his behavior scared and overwhelmed them, and they encouraged him, in vain, to seek treatment, pointing out that mental health care was readily available and free at the University of California.
Three psychiatric experts who examined Mr. Reales Dominguez testified that he suffered from schizophrenia; a court-appointed psychologist called his symptoms “a textbook” case.
Initially, prosecutors argued that Mr. Reales Dominguez was able to meet California’s legal threshold for mental competence, which requires only that defendants can grasp the charges against them and work with their lawyers.
But they shifted their position late Thursday, conceding that he was incapable of assisting with his defense, after county attorneys sought permission for the jail where Mr. Reales Dominguez was being held to treat him involuntarily with medication, and a physician reported that his medical condition had deteriorated to the point that he was gravely disabled.
It is unclear how long it might take to restore Mr. Reales Dominguez’s competency, or to find him a hospital placement. Mental hospital placements are scarce — particularly for criminal defendants — in California, and Mr. Hutchinson, his lawyer, said the waiting list for a bed was currently two to three months.
Born in El Salvador, Mr. Reales Dominguez arrived in the United States as a child and grew up in Oakland, Calif., with relatives. He graduated from high school in 2020, interning with local mentoring programs for students interested in a career in medicine.
At the competency hearing, his former girlfriend, Caley Gallardo, 21, now a fourth-year student at U.C. Davis, testified that they met a month or two into the fall 2020 semester, bonding over a mutual “drive to our future.” By January, they were in a committed relationship.
By the end of their freshman year, however, his behavior had shifted. He withdrew, she said, and began neglecting his hygiene and skipping meals. At one point, she said, he told her “that the devil was talking to him in his dreams.”
As his symptoms intensified early this year, his roommates at U.C. Davis met to strategize about how to get him into treatment, but Mr. Reales Dominguez resisted, several of them testified in the hearing.
On April 25, he was separated from U.C. Davis, according to university officials. He had failed all his classes, prosecutors said.
Two days later, Mr. Breaux, a beloved local advocate for compassion, was found stabbed to death in a park in downtown Davis. Two days after that, Mr. Najm was attacked in another Davis park on a bike path and died from knife injuries.
Mr. Reales Dominguez was arrested after Davis police received more than a dozen reports from residents who said that a slender young man with long dark hair was pacing near the scene of Mr. Najm’s murder with a striking intensity.