RALEIGH — In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled to remand a case involving a Vilas man convicted in January 2018 of child sexual abuse crimes, pending a determination on whether he was competent to stand trial at the time.

The ruling concerns Jack Howard Hollars of Vilas. In January 2018, Hollars was convicted of three counts of second-degree sex offense and three counts of indecent liberties with a child, with the crimes alleged to have taken place from 1977-1981. Hollars was sentenced to 150 years in prison following a three-day trial in Watauga County Superior Court.

“Because we have found that the trial court erred by failing to hold a competency hearing immediately prior to or during (Hollars’) trial, we ... remand to the trial court for a determination of whether a meaningful retrospective hearing can be conducted on the issue of (Hollars’) competency at the time of his trial,” the court states.

The three-judge panel gave its opinion on Aug. 6 in a 2-1 decision, with Judge Toby Hampson giving the opinion of the court, joined by Judge Hunter Murphy, with Judge Philip Berger Jr. dissenting.

The case was heard in the N.C. Court of Appeals on March 28. N.C. Special Deputy Attorney General Josephine N. Tetteh presented the state’s case on behalf of the attorney general, and Assistant Appellate Defender Anne M. Gomez represented Hollars in the hearing.

“While we’re happy with the ruling, we’re disappointed it wasn’t a unanimous decision,” Gomez said.

With the decision not being unanimous, the case can be automatically appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court.

“If a member of the three-judge panel disagrees with the decision of the majority, that judge may write a dissent and the parties in the case will have a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of North Carolina,” the N.C. Court of Appeals’ website states.

That decision has to come within the next 35 days, according to Gomez. The N.C. Attorney General’s office said that Tetteh no longer works in the office and that they are reviewing the case for a potential appeal.

District Attorney Seth Banks, whose office tried the original criminal case in January 2018, declined to comment.

According to Hampson’s opinion, if the trial court concludes that a retrospective determination is still possible, a competency hearing will be held.

“If the conclusion is that the defendant was competent, no new trial will be required,” Hampson’s decision states. “If the trial court determines that a meaningful hearing is no longer possible, defendant’s conviction must be reversed and a new trial may be granted when he is competent to stand trial.”

In his opinion, Hampson stated there was substantive evidence before the court that raised “a bona fide doubt as to (Hollars’) competency to stand trial,” noting his extensive history of mental illness, concerns raised by Hollars’ attorney during the trial and a five-month gap between his competency hearing and his trial.

According to Hampson’s factual background in the Aug. 6 ruling, Hollars was originally arrested in February 2012 in relation to the case with further indictments following in 2013 and 2015. Between his original arrest in 2012 and the trial six years later, eight forensic evaluations with divergent findings were conducted, according to Berger’s dissent. Out of those eight evaluations, five of them found Hollars to be competent and three of them found him to be not competent, Berger’s findings states.

The last of those evaluations occurred five months before the January 2018 trial. During the trial, Hollars’ defense attorney stated multiple times during the three days that the defendant didn’t understand what was going on, according to Hampson’s factual background.

Berger’s dissent says that Hollars was shown to be competent during the trial. Berger’s reason was that the court’s inquiry of the defense counsel on the start of the second day satisfied the competency requirement.

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