Prosecutors had sought to compel Lee Evans to submit to psychological testing on the grounds that his recent behavior has raised doubts about his ability to assist in his defense in one of New Jersey's most sensational cold-case murders.
Evans and his cousin, Philander Hampton, were charged last March with the murders and have pleaded not guilty. Hampton is being held on $5 million bail, while Evans' former attorney, Michael Robbins, managed to get his bail reduced to $950,000, allowing Evans to be released last summer.
A few days after his release, Evans showed up at a police department in a neighboring county and reported there was a conspiracy against him in Essex County that included Robbins, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and Mayor Cory Booker, according to court filings. He allegedly refused to give more details on the nature of the conspiracy except to say he believed his phone was tapped. He later fired Robbins.
After prosecutors filed last month to have Evans undergo a psychological exam, he approached the FBI with the same allegations, Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Peter Guarino said Monday.
"I think the defendant is sincere in his beliefs," Guarino told state Superior Court Judge Patricia Costello. "He's not posturing or trying to create circumstances for a mistrial. But to have that sincere belief suggests someone, to me, who is laboring under an illusion."
Costello disagreed, calling Evans' conduct "unusual" but not enough to warrant a psychological exam.
"The prosecution has not met its burden to raise a bona fide issue as to his competency," she said. "He seems to understand the proceedings, whatever his beliefs on why they were initiated."
Outside the courtroom before the hearing, Evans called the proceeding "a joke."
"They want to give me a psychological exam just because I went to the police," he said.
Bukie Adetula, Evans' attorney, said Evans has been cooperative.
A trial date is set for early May, with Hampton expected to be tried first. That could change, however, depending on the result of Hampton's efforts to have his statements to police thrown out. A hearing is scheduled for next month.
It was Hampton's statements in the fall of 2008 that broke the case open after more than 30 years. According to prosecutors, Hampton described how he helped Evans herd the teens at gunpoint into an abandoned building, then set it on fire, allegedly as revenge for some missing drugs.
The youths initially were listed as missing, creating a disconnect between the search for them and the investigation of the fire at 256 Camden Street; consequently, the bodies were never recovered.
The case drew widespread attention not only because of the passage of time but because the 58-year-old Evans, a carpenter and handyman, has been a visible figure in the community over the last three decades and has crossed paths at times with some of the victims' relatives.