Alton Nolen deemed competent. Now what?

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NORMAN, Okla. - A man charged with beheading a coworker and stabbing another is competent to stand trial, a Cleveland County Judge ruled Thursday afternoon.

Alton Nolen can enter a guilty plea if he wishes, Judge Lori Walkley determined after four days of testimony from mental health professionals who treated Nolen.

Hold on. "Competent?" What does that even mean?

Nolen has wanted to plead guilty for more than a year and be put to death.

But, Nolen's attorneys argued he didn't fully understand what was going on in the courtroom and didn't understand what a guilty plea actually meant.

"In our country, people who are mentally incompetent, who do not understand right from wrong are not criminally culpable," legal analyst Garvin Isaacs told NewsChannel 4 in August. "We need to lock them up in a mental hospital to protect the public."

How did the judge make that decision?

By law, Nolen is presumed competent unless he is proved incompetent.

To do so, his lawyers called on mental health professionals who evaluated and treated Nolen.

They contended he was hostile, suspicious, accusatory, distracted and aggressive, all of which are signs of mental illness.

They pointed to examples of times when Nolen threatened his caretakers with violence and refused to answer test questions.

Prosecutors countered by saying Nolen may have some symptoms of mental illness but he has a clear idea of what is going on.

He is only being difficult because he wants to be difficult, they argued.

So, what happens next?

The court will reconvene Friday for what is officially known as a "mental retardation hearing" - a term that is politically incorrect but still found numerous times in Oklahoma law.

The judge will again invite Nolen to attend so the procedure can move forward.

An expert will evaluate Nolen's IQ to make sure he can legally receive the death penalty.

Another hearing? But, wasn't he just deemed "competent?"

Yes, but they are two different things.

As both sides agreed during the hearing, a person can be mentally ill but still competent.

What does IQ have to do with anything?

By law, the state can't execute anyone with "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning" - defined as an IQ of 70 or below.

So, if the IQ is below 70...?

The maximum possible punishment is life in prison without parole.

Nolen hasn't even shown up to court the past few days. What if he refuses to speak or decides not to enter a guilty plea?

At some point, Nolen will be required to at least be present.

But, if he refuses to speak or stick to his plea, then the entire process will essentially start over with a jury trial.

When will Nolen learn his sentence?

Assuming he sticks to his guilty plea, the sentencing trial will begin Tuesday morning.

The district attorney estimates it will take one-two days as the state calls eight-10 witnesses, including Traci Johnson, a victim of Nolen's alleged attack.