Judge orders further mental evaluation of Rohnert Park hit-run suspect
Published: Friday, July 20, 2012 at 11:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 at 11:09 a.m.
An initial evaluation reviewed in private during a court hearing Friday suggested Robert E. Cowart is mentally competent to help defend himself against charges stemming from the hit-and-run death of a Sonoma State University professor.
But Judge Gary A. Medvigy ordered a more formal evaluation to address the enduring concerns of Cowart’s attorneys that the Rohnert Park man may not fully understand his situation.
Cowart, 68, is charged with felony hit-and-run in the June 8 collision that killed just-retired SSU Professor Steve Norwick, who was on his weekly bike ride to breakfast in Penngrove when he was struck on Petaluma Hill Road and fatally injured.
Norwick, 68, died 11 1/2 days later.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said her staff had not been privy to any reports or communication supporting the defense’s contention that Cowart is not fit for prosecution.
“We have nothing to suggest he is not OK to go forward with the case,” Ravitch said in a phone interview Friday.
Cowart, who uses a wheelchair around the courthouse, has seemed disoriented at times during court proceedings and appears to have left discussions about his case in the hands of family members and attorneys.
In his first court appearance, his lawyer told a judge Cowart had an aneurysm that might impede blood flow to his brain and had suffered a stroke — though it was unclear when.
His family and attorneys have since refused to comment about the case or further explain Cowart’s condition or his ability to drive the day of the crash.
In addition to his medical problems, Cowart had three prior drunken driving convictions, though his attorney said in court that he no longer drinks.
Cowart, who was in the process of retiring from a family-run Petaluma well-digging business, was arrested after two neighbors — both off-duty law enforcement officers — saw him return home in a damaged pickup that matched the description of the hit-and-run vehicle.
The officers said he matter-of-factly recalled having struck a bicyclist earlier in the day but said he hadn’t stopped because he did not believe the man was hurt.
CHP investigators said evidence collected later indicated Cowart went on about his day as if nothing had happened, even stopping at a market two miles down the road to buy milk on his way to work.
Cowart is scheduled to return to court Aug. 24 and, depending on the results of his evaluation, could undergo additional scrutiny or simply have his criminal hearing dates rescheduled.
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