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Appeals court reverses conviction for East Bay man accused of killing wife

MARTINEZ — A California appeals court reversed a nearly four-year-old murder conviction Wednesday, ruling that a Contra Costa County judge erred when he refused a public defender’s request to review the defendant’s mental state.
Kevin Easter, 56, was convicted of murdering his wife in 2015. 
Kevin Easter, 56, was convicted in November 2015 of murdering his wife , Janice Easter, 52, after prosecutors say she tried to kick him out of their home. Authorities said Kevin Easter shot his wife five times at their Army Street house late in the night of Aug. 7, 2013.
On Wednesday, a First District appeals court reversed Easter’s conviction and 65 years to life sentence. The court ruled that Judge Barry Baskin should have reviewed Easter’s mental competency days before the trial started, when Easter’s attorney, Mike Kelly, reported to the court that his client’s delusions were making it near-impossible for the two to communicate.
Easter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia but had been previously found competent to stand trial. When he asked for Easter’s competency to be reviewed again five days before the November 2015 murder trial , Kelly said Easter’s condition had recently worsened.
Prosecutors called it a stall tactic and said Easter was exaggerating his symptoms.
Kelly told Baskin that Easter’s hygiene had recently worsened and he was having hallucinations. But the appeals court centered in on one detail in particular: Kelly said conversations with his client had become analogous to a “word salad,” and compared Easter’s manner of speaking to tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles into the air.
Easter’s inability to effectively communicate with Kelly obscured his right to participate in his own defense, the appeals court wrote in its ruling.
“Mr. Kelly’s description of defendant’s new ‘word salad’ symptom — especially in the context of defendant’s lengthy history of psychiatric issues, the amount of time that had passed since his initial evaluations and an apparently recent change in his medications that could have accounted for his new psychiatric issues — warranted the suspension of the criminal proceedings and the appointment of a medical professional to evaluate defendant’s competency,” the appeals court decision says.
Instead, Baskin ruled that Kelly had failed to establish Easter’s condition was substantially different from when he had previously been found competent to stand trial. The appeals court called his ruling as “an abuse of discretion,” meaning the court saw it as a clearcut, unforced error.
Baskin, a longtime trial judge, was made the presiding judge of Contra Costa County in 2019. He served on California Judges Association Ethics Committee from 2008 to 2011 and was declared 2009’s Trial Judge of the Year by the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers’ Association.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office did not immediately comment on how Easter’s case will be handled from here. Similarly, Kelly did not returns an email request for comment.

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