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Woman who slashed Hackensack pastor’s wife committed to psychiatric facility

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

ONLY ON CVP: A woman charged with trying to kill a Hackensack pastor’s wife by slicing her with a box cutter nearly seven years ago was indefinitely committed to a long-term mental health facility, ending one of Bergen County’s oldest criminal cases — at least for now.

Although the charges against Yolanda Cooper were dropped, they could be reinstated under a commitment order approved by a judge in Hackensack on Thursday.

Cooper, 47, has been appearing in court regularly since 2007, as judges and attorneys wrestled with whether or not she was competent to stand trial. State statute requires dismissal of charges after seven years if a defendant can’t be made competent.

For her part, Cooper has insisted all along that she wants a trial.

Prosecutors said Cooper followed her pastor’s wife into the woman’s bathroom in the basement of Trinity Baptist Church in Hackensack during a Sunday morning service on July 22, 2007, grabbed her by the hair and sliced her several times with a box cutter.

Theresa Whitfield — the wife of the Rev. Jonathan Whitfield — was holding her baby daughter in her arms during the attack, they said.

The baby was unhurt, but Whitfield was rushed to then-Hackensack Hospital with cuts on her face, neck, chest and thigh.

Doctors needed 2,000 stitches to repair her wounds.

Several parishioners there for church services told police they heard Whitfield’s screams, then saw Cooper run from the room, out of the church and down the street. One of those who followed her pointed Cooper out to the officers who arrested her.

Cooper, of Hackensack, already had charges pending for threatening a Bergen County corrections officer and EMT nurses on two separate occasions.

This time, she was indicted on several charges — including attempted murder, purposely causing serious bodily injury, various weapons counts, threatening and menacing police officers and possessing a silver-handled razor as a convicted felon — and ordered held on $750,000 bail.

Cooper was brought to court for what are known as Krol mental competency every six months or so, insisting each time that she wanted a trial and vowing that she would be exonerated.

Four years ago, then-Presiding Judge Harry Carroll declared Cooper mentally competent and ordered a trial.

When the case came before hearings before Presiding Superior Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi later that year, however, she expressed concern over the length of time that had passed and ordered a new evaluation.

DeAvila-Silebi is known as cautious with defendants who have mental issues. Last year, she ordered prosecutors to include civil commitment as part of a plea agreement with a defendant who said he heard voices, eventually instructing them in how she had handled such cases as a prosecutor herself.

Recently, she ordered a mental evaluation for Joseph Bariso, a Lodi man charged with shooting his grandmother while she slept on the couch. “It’s better to find out his mental status now than a year from now,” the judge said.

An expert witness, Dr. Stephen Simring, told DeAvila-Silebi that Cooper suffers from delusions that “are not reliably treatable.” Simring also said that Cooper improves with medication but needs supervision to make sure that she takes it — and in the correct doses.

Defense attorney Benjamin Morton and Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Nicholas Ostuni both said they’d be satisfied with Cooper remaining indefinitely confined in a secure state mental health facility.

Defense lawyers ordinarily argue for mental incompetence to protect a mentally ill client who is guilty of a crime. However, Morton told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that he was placed in an unusual position of arguing for mental competency because his client maintained her innocence and insisted on a trial.

“She’s an intelligent person who knows the abstract details of a trial,” the defense lawyer said, “but she sees conspiracies all around her.”

Keeping her institutionalized, he said, means that Cooper is “going to get the help and treatment she needs.”

Now that the case has been moved from the criminal to civil courts, all matters going forward will be conducted privately and the details kept sealed.

Cooper will be committed to either Greystone Psychiatric Hospital or the Anne Klein Forensic Center.

She be evaluated periodically and will remain committed as long as she’s diagnosed with severe mental illness. If she recovers enough to be deemed competent, a new hearing will be held.

STORY: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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