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Utah County Jail

Utahn’s mental illness at the center of 7-year court case

By Annie Knox, KSL | Posted - Dec. 13, 2019 at 7:51 a.m.



PROVO — Earl Norman remembers the moment he first began to worry about his younger brother.

It was a snowy day in February 2004, when James Clive Norman rode his bike from Lehi to his parents’ home in Orem and said he planned to continue the journey to Houston, which would host the Super Bowl.

“He was frantically going through the house unplugging computers and looking for a way to access a floppy disk,” the brother said Tuesday in Provo’s 4th District Court. “He seemed very paranoid about the government finding out about something he had on a floppy disk.”

Defense attorneys are asking Judge Christine Johnson to consider the testimony as she contemplates whether the now 41-year-old James Norman is legally competent to face a charge of murder. An expert last year recommended a finding of competency, meaning Norman can sufficiently understand the criminal case and help his attorneys put together their defense.

Prosecutors say Norman strangled his roommate, 28-year-old Omar Abas Sharif, at the Utah State Hospital in 2011. Norman has previously been found competent and was transferred to the Utah County Jail, where his condition worsened in 2014 to the point where he was no longer fit to face criminal charges.

Earl Norman visited his younger brother at the jail several times a month, he testified Tuesday. But James Norman eventually stopped chatting with him and communicated only by nodding his head and smiling.

“It felt like two different conversations,” Earl Norman said, adding that his brother appeared increasingly skinny and and unkempt in each visit. “He had a look in his eye of not being in the same place as I am.”

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Yet Norman waited several months to be admitted again to the state hospital, where he could receive more thorough treatment from doctors who worked to restore him to competency. His ordeal illustrated the long wait times many mentally ill Utahns faced as they waited for a bed to become available in the hospital, documented in a special Deseret News report. The facility houses patients who are civilly committed, in addition to those awaiting trial or convicted of crimes.

Following a lawsuit from Utah’s Disability Law Center, it has since established a 30-day maximum wait time.

Norman was first sent to the Utah State Hospital after being charged with head-butting his defense attorney during a 2010 court hearing. A year later, he was accused of killing Sharif inside the hospital because he was upset about his snoring, prosecutors allege.

Sharif was found on the floor between his bed and the wall. He did not have a pulse and was later pronounced dead at an emergency room. An autopsy determined that Sharif died as a result of strangulation.


To me, it's sort of like a babysitter babysitting two kids and one of them dies. The babysitter has some responsibility there.

–Earl Norman


Earl Norman suggested his brother bears some responsibility but believes the hospital erred in how it supervised James Norman.

“To me, it’s sort of like a babysitter babysitting two kids and one of them dies. The babysitter has some responsibility there,” he said.

Clean shaven, shackled, and wearing jeans and a blue collared shirt, James Norman gazed out the window during much of the hearing. His older brother described him as a giving person who has long donated to several charities and sees himself as the head of a charitable organization.

Earl Norman also recalled James Norman saying he was trained by the CIA in his old job and now works for the federal agency, believing its leaders may retaliate against his family if he were exposed as an agent.


Ultimately, this is a lay witness. They're trying to seek to refute three experts regarding his condition.

–Doug Finch, prosecutor


Prosecutor Doug Finch emphasized Earl Norman is not a doctor trained to diagnose mental illness.

“Ultimately, this is a lay witness. They’re trying to seek to refute three experts regarding his condition,” Finch said.

Outside the courtroom, Finch said he intends to ask the judge to allow Norman to stay in a unit at the Salt Lake County Jail catering to those with severe mental illness who are working with doctors to become competent. No such wing is available in the Utah County Jail, he said.

The judge noted the most recent recommendation of competency she received from a doctor was more than a year ago, in October 2018.

“I’m anxious to get some closure to it,” Johnson said. She granted prosecutors’ request to make arguments in court papers before Norman is due back in court Jan. 9.

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