Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Blazej Kot was appealing his sentence on the grounds of an “insanity” plea. In fact, Kot’s attorneys were arguing that he was not competent to stand trial — a separate and different legal concept.
Ithaca, N.Y. — An appellate court has rejected the appeal of a Cornell graduate student who was convicted of murdering his wife in 2009.
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The judges’ decision was released today.
Blazej Kot, then-24, of New Zealand, fatally stabbed his wife to death with a box cutter while they were on a running trail near their apartment in June 2009, according to court records.
He was also found guilty of arson — he set fire to the couple’s apartment to cover up the crime — and of leading police on a high-speed, five-mile chase when confronted, records state.
Caroline Coffey, who was doing post-doctorate cancer research at Cornell, was the victim. She was 28.
The murder occurred weeks after they returned from their honeymoon in Costa Rica. A park police officer found Kot with dried blood on his arms in his car in a Taughannock State Park parking lot.
Judge John Rowley ordered Kot to serve the maximum sentence in 2010 after a three-week trial “that included testimony he plotted the killing and set fire to the couple’s apartment,” according to the Associated Press.
Kot was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree arson and tampering with the evidence. He was re-sentenced on the lesser charges in 2013, according to Syracuse.com.
Kot’s attorneys then appealed the 2010 jury trial verdict and the 2013 re-sentencing of the former Cornell grad student.
From the judge’s ruling, which can be read in full below, it’s clear that Kot’s attorneys argued that the court erred in failing to hold a “competency hearing” after the testimony of Rory Houghtalen, the forensic psychiatrist, during the trial.
Kot’s attorneys tried showing that if this hearing had been held after the psychiatrist’s testimony, it would have led the jurors to conclude that the murderer’s “extreme emotional disturbance” was to blame for the killing, according to the judges.
But the court, led by Judge JP McCarthy, rejected that line of argument. They list several reasons for doing so.
Here are a few of the big ones:
1 — The psychiatrist didn’t back the defense’s claims
For one, the judge notes, the forensic psychiatrist did not actually testify that Kot was incompetent to stand trial.
Given that fact, it doesn’t make sense to conclude that the jurors would have ruled Kot incompetent for trial had they listened to Houghtalen beforehand.
“During the trial, Houghtalen did not opine that defendant was incompetent, and defense counsel at no point requested a competency hearing,” Judge McCarthy says.
2 — Kot appeared to understand fully well what was going on in the trial
Judge McCarthy says “numerous facts” show that Kot was competent to stand trial.
We’ll just quote directly from the judge here:
“Notably, during a sidebar, defendant himself requested to be excused from the courtroom as the People were about to introduce photographs of the victim’s body, and he made statements at sentencing expressing regret over killing his wife,” McCarthy writes.
“…The record here contains numerous facts undercutting any assertion that defendant, at the time of his trial and the pretrial proceedings, was suffering from any mental condition that left him ‘incapable of understanding or participating in such proceedings.’”
“Up to and throughout the trial, defendant continuously exhibited an awareness of the nuances of the criminal justice process, including, as is pertinent to this discussion, the crucial role that Houghtalen, as his forensic psychiatric expert, would play in his defense.”
3 — The jury made its decision even with Houghtalen’s testimony
The judge explains that the jury rejected “the defense’s extreme emotional disturbance defense” even with the psychiatrist’s testimony. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that it would have sided with the defense during a competency hearing.
4 — History of mental illness does not equate to incompetency for trial
The defense, according to the judge’s ruling, tried arguing that “the full extent of (Kot’s) illness was not known because he did not receive adequate medical care until after the trial.”
The judge once again rejects that argument.
“A history of mental illness and/or suicide attempts does not compel a finding of incompetency or necessarily require a competency hearing,” Judge McCarthy says.