When Boyle District Court bailiff Tim Bryant announced that everyone should stand when Judge Jeff Dotson entered the courtroom Wednesday, the candy-striped inmates immediately rose to their feet, as did the officers of the court and the folks seated in the gallery.
Eugene Shirley Coffman and his brother James Wesley Coffman did not.
That moment at the beginning of Wednesday afternoon’s docket revealed the courtroom to be a like an alien world to the brothers — described as low-functioning adults — who have lived together for decades in a home on Catholic Knob with limited contact with the outside world.
It was the first court appearance for the brothers, who are each charged with first-degree wanton endangerment and terroristic threatening Feb. 28 after an armed standoff with police. The standoff ended when pepper gas was deployed inside their home, forcing them to surrender.
When they were arraigned Wednesday, the court went to extra lengths to get them through the process.
Dotson agreed with defense attorney Kieran Comer’s request to waive the judge’s reading of constitutional rights because it was clear that neither brother would be able to comprehend them. Comer, who had not talked to the brothers beforehand, told Dotson, “They have different levels of cognitive abilities, but both appear to be seriously deficient.”
Eugene Coffman said he and his brother had lived together at the home for “30 or 40 years,” but he did not know his age or birthdate. James Wesley Coffman told the court he is “a little over 60 years old.”
Comer entered not guilty pleas for each brother, and a preliminary hearing was set for next Wednesday, March 13, during which prosecutors will put on evidence in hope of convincing Dotson that probable cause exists to hand up the cases for possible indictment by a grand jury.
Boyle County Attorney Richard Campbell, the prosecutor in district court, said afterward that other steps may be taken on the brothers’ behalf before the preliminary hearing occurs.
Campbell said he has asked the state Cabinet for Health and Family Service’s Department of Community Based Services, which includes the adult protective division, to conduct an investigation into the living conditions at their home, their mental abilities and other issues.
Comer, who spoke with both brothers briefly in the courtroom after the arraignment, said afterward that he is certain they are not mentally competent to stand trial if the cases against them proceed.
“I don’t think they have the mental capacity to understand what’s going on, period,” he said.
In talking with them, Comer said they did not express concern about the felony charges they face but instead were worried about personal items left unattended in their home, like “tin cans filled with pennies.”
“The police went in there and made sure everything was safe. All your stuff will be in there, OK?” Comer told the men.
The public defender said everyone involved “is trying to find some sort of resolution so that everyone stays safe going forward.”
That includes making sure the brothers are placed in a safe, healthy environment, and the concerns of law enforcement and neighbors about safety issues related to the presence of guns in the residence are addressed, he said.
“The guns put everyone in a bad position,” Comer said
Court records show a revolver and 12-gauge shotgun, along with ammunition for both weapons, were recovered from the home.
The records identify Eugene Coffman as the one who brandished the handgun, first at social workers making a welfare check and then repeatedly at police officers who commanded the brothers to leave the residence.
No shots were fired during the six-hour standoff, but Eugene Coffman was still waving the pistol and uncooperative as he fled the home after pepper gas was released inside, police said.
Court records also show the toilet in the home was not functioning and was overflowing with feces and urine. A plumber sent to the home by the landlord was turned away by the brothers two days before the standoff, records show.
The brothers were returned to the Boyle County Detention Center following their arraignment with their bonds remaining at $20,000 each.
Sheriff Marty Elliott, who has known the brothers for several years and has checked on their welfare since they have been jailed, said both men seem to be adapting well to confinement, where they are in isolation cells apart from the general inmate population.
“They were all scrubbed and groomed. They had gotten haircuts,” Elliott said. “I felt they were grateful just to be in there, to be warm and to have food. One of them told me he hadn’t seen a TV in four years.”