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Admitted killer of Charlottesville author Matthew Farrell competent for trial

After more than a year of trying, doctors say they have been able to restore the mental competency of the admitted killer and former girlfriend of Charlottesville author and publisher Matthew Farrell.

Shawna Murphy, the 39-year-old woman charged with killing Farrell nearly 16 months ago in his Albemarle County residence just north of the city, is now fully competent to stand trial after spending more than a year in the care of Western State Hospital, a residential mental health facility in Staunton.

"She currently possesses trial competency," Albemarle County Juvenile & Domestic Relations Judge Areshini Pather said in court on Thursday. "She currently possesses the necessary capacity to understand the proceedings against her and assist in them."

The determination greenlights Murphy’s trial and concludes the longest competency restoration processes in the memory of local retired forensic psychologist Jeffrey Fracher.

"It sure took them long enough," Fracher, who is not connected to the case, told The Daily Progress. "It should never take that long."

Wearing shackles and the bright red jumpsuit that is the women’s uniform of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, Murphy appeared subdued in court. With tortoise-shell glasses and hair grown past her shoulders with a patch of gray at the left side of her forehead, she gave little indication in court of her exuberant past as a clown, a juggler and fire dancer.

Murphy stands accused of killing one of the most visible figures of Charlottesville’s arts scene in the late 20th century with a single gunshot to the back of his head in his house on Stony Point Road. Farrell, who operated a small imprint for locally penned poetry and prose called Hypocrite Press and voluntarily promoted an array of artists, was found dead in his bed on the morning of Oct. 25, 2022.

Having found Murphy capable of standing trial after reading a sealed report from Western State Hospital, Pather also ordered another evaluation, this one to determine Murphy’s mental status at the time of the shooting.

It was Murphy who called 911 on the morning of Oct. 25. When police arrived at the house where she lived with Farrell, officers said, she appeared to be live-streaming. Murphy told police it was her who had killed Farrell.

A day earlier, Murphy had posted on Facebook a scene from the 1996 film "Freeway," in which an attractive woman suddenly kills a man with a gunshot to the back of his head.

"I got an A in Acting 1 in college for performing this scene," Murphy wrote atop the posted movie clip.

A month after Farrell’s death, Murphy told The Daily Progress in a telephone call from from jail that she harbored doubts that Farrell was truly dead. She also alleged, without offering any evidence, that Farrell was a serial killer, that the bodies of 15 women were buried in his yard and that police had failed to properly investigate such assertions.

Pather said that she would commission the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, an interdisciplinary forensic psychology program at the University of Virginia, to conduct the sanity evaluation on Murphy.

Fracher said that such reports rarely result in finding a defendant too insane to be found guilty, particularly since many states bolstered their thresholds after widespread outrage over the 1982 acquittal of John Hinckley Jr. for shooting then-President Ronald Reagan, his press secretary, a police officer and a Secret Service agent the prior year.

"It’s a high bar in Virginia," said Fracher, "and I’d be really surprised if they found her not guilty by reason of insanity."

Murphy’s court-appointed lawyer, Lacey Parker, noted in a Feb. 12 hearing that Daniel Murrie, one of the UVa institute’s two directors, would likely be the one writing the sanity report.

"He’s a straight-shooter," said Fracher. "If Murrie finds her insane, then she really is insane."

Murphy faces charges of second-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. While the firearm charge maxes out at three years for a first offender, a second-degree murder conviction can bring 40 years in prison.

The judge set Murphy’s next hearing for May 6.


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