Los Angeles

Judge Enters ‘Not Guilty' Plea After Trader Joe's Suspect Repeatedly Asks to ‘Plead Insanity'

A man accused of triggering a gun battle that resulted in a Trader Joe's assistant manager being shot to death by Los Angeles police tried to "plead insanity" at his arraignment Monday on murder and other counts, leading a judge to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

Gene Evin Atkins, 28, is facing 51 counts, including six counts of attempted murder -- including of four police officers -- and 26 counts of hostage-taking stemming from the July 21 standoff inside the Silver Lake store.

Melyda Maricela Corado was fatally wounded in front of the market in the 2700 block of Hyperion Avenue.

Atkins is representing himself against the charges, which also include attempting to murder his grandmother and his 17-year-old girlfriend, assault on a peace officer with a semi-automatic firearm, kidnapping, second-degree robbery, attempted carjacking, assault with a firearm, mayhem and fleeing a pursuing police officer's vehicle while driving recklessly.

Appearing in a downtown courtroom in yellow jail clothes, Atkins objected to a media request to photograph the arraignment, telling the judge he believed one victim drew conclusions from footage seen on television.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan overruled the objection.

Three women who had been among the hostages in the market sat in the courtroom as the prosecutor read the list of charges against Atkins, who stood quietly, his hands shackled and his head bowed. He then asked for a postponement of his arraignment.

When Sullivan explained that he already was being arraigned, Atkins replied, "I plead insanity ... I'm pleading insanity."

The judge answered, "You've been found competent to be your own attorney."

At a Nov. 7 hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gustavo Sztraicher granted Atkins' request to act as his own attorney after warning the defendant that it was, in his opinion, "almost always an unwise decision to represent yourself" and that the case against him was being handled by an experienced criminal prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Tannaz Mokayef.

Atkins -- who could face life in prison if convicted as charged -- told Sztraicher that he understood and wanted to go forward.

At his arraignment, the defendant clarified to Sullivan, "I'm pleading incompetence at the time of the allegations."

After Sullivan entered a not guilty plea for the record, Atkins told the judge he had "no criminal record but I have an extensive mental health record," including a diagnosis of "bipolar disorder and a list of other disorders, as well."

Sullivan let bail stand at $15.1 million and ordered Atkins to return to court on Feb. 15, when a date is expected to be set for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

Atkins had asked for a year to review more than 5,500 pages of discovery turned over by the prosecutor during the arraignment.

Sullivan said Atkins was entitled to no special treatment due to his pro per status, was presumed to know the law, and would have to make requests for investigators and other help in handling his case via written requests to the court.

Atkins said he felt as if his civil rights had been violated, though the context wasn't clear. He seemed ill-equipped to handle the legal process, still asking to set the matter for arraignment long after the not guilty plea had been entered on his behalf.

Los Angeles police Chief Michel Moore confirmed July 24 that the bullet that killed Corado was fired by a police officer, not Atkins, who surrendered to SWAT officers after about three hours of negotiations.

"This is a heartbreaking reminder of the split-second decisions that officers must make every day," an emotional Moore said then. "And it is also a sobering reminder of the destruction a lone individual with a handgun can create."

Though he did not shoot Corado, Atkins was charged with her killing under the theory that he set off the chain of events that led to the 27-year-old woman's death.

In the hours leading up to the standoff, Atkins allegedly shot his 76-year-old grandmother and his girlfriend in South Los Angeles. He's accused of kidnapping the teen and forcing her into his grandmother's car, which he crashed into a light pole in front of the Trader Joe's market at the end of a police chase and fled inside, while exchanging gunfire with pursuing officers.

"As Atkins exited his vehicle, witnesses reported they observed Atkins shoot at the officers. The officers exited their vehicle and returned fire as Atkins ran toward the entrance of Trader Joe's," Moore told reporters.

The police chief said the two officers -- one a six-year veteran, the other a two-year veteran -- fired a total of eight shots in return. One of them struck Atkins in the left arm, but he continued running inside. Another struck Corado, traveling through her arm and into her body, Moore said.

Corado managed to stumble back inside the store after being shot, collapsing behind the manager's station. She was carried out of the business by others in the store, but paramedics were unable to save her.

Moore -- who described the officers as being "devastated" -- said he believes they did "what they needed to do in order to defend the people of Los Angeles and defend the people in that store and defend themselves."

The police chief said Atkins fired additional rounds at police from inside the store, but officers did not return fire.

Several store employees and customers were able to escape from the store, while others were released by Atkins at various times before he surrendered, according to the police chief.

Relatives of Corado filed a civil lawsuit Nov. 29 against the city of Los Angeles and two LAPD officers, saying they were still seeking answers about the shooting that the city and police department have refused to provide.

Attorney John C. Taylor, representing Corado's father and brother, called the fatal shooting an ``out-of-policy'' shooting in which no tactical plan was established. He said Trader Joe's had no liability in the shooting and that the store "was as much a victim as Mely Corado."

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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