CHATHAM — For a few tense seconds, the handful of bailiffs surrounding Matthew Bernard during his arraignment Thursday leaned toward him as he took pen in hand to scrawl his signature on a court document.
One bailiff set a hand on the table near Bernard's writing hand while the officers behind the teenager took a few steps toward him. Court-appointed defense attorney James C. Martin leaned in over Bernard's left shoulder and appeared to whisper in his ear while staring at the document.
Bernard's mental health had been questioned ever since he made headlines last month by running naked and drenched in mace past watching reporters following a manhunt involving more than 100 police after three of his family members were found dead. After his arrest he needed hospital care because he repeatedly banged his head against the cage inside a police car, police reported.
He is currently being held by the state's Behavioral Health and Developmental Services instead of at a local jail, court documents state. And his attorney has requested that a psychological evaluation be done.
The reporters and court personnel watching the scene Thursday morning leaned forward in their chairs just a little, sitting back only after Bernard returned the pen to a bailiff.
When the 18-year-old accused of a triple homicide Aug. 27 appeared in court for the first time, it was without the signature head bandage and prison-orange jumpsuit from the mugshot that began circulating shortly after his arrest.
Instead, he wore regular street clothes, the most noticeable of which was a green, canvas jacket. He stood stiff and attentive in Pittsylvania County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court throughout the hearing.
Moments before the hearing began — as the courtroom filled with reporters, court workers and others — Bernard nodded knowingly to a person in the back.
Soon, Judge Brian Turpin asked whether any witnesses were present. The handful of spectators and court personnel there looked around expectantly. After no one answered, proceedings continued.
Turpin read the charges: three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a homicide. Bernard is accused of killing his mother, Joan Bernard, 62; his sister, Emily Bernard Bivens, 25; and her 14-month-old son, Cullen Micah Bivens, at the Bernard family's home in Keeling.
Emily Bernard Bivens is the wife of minor-league baseball player Blake Bivens and Cullen Micah Bivens is his son.
"Do you understand these charges?," Turpin said, turning to look at Bernard.
"Yes sir," the teenager replied, in a low, soft, tone of voice. Turpin continued with his questions, asking if Bernard would collaborate with his appointed counsel, James Martin. "Yes sir," he answered again.
Once the questioning ended, Turpin scheduled the preliminary hearing for 9 a.m Nov. 6.
Initially, Turpin suggested an earlier date, but changed it due to a scheduling conflict raised by county Pittsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney Brian Haskins.
"I have another trial on that day," said Haskins. "I want to give this case my full attention."
Martin stood up, light reflecting off his glasses. "We have filed a motion for a competence and sanity evaluation," he said, reading the words off a piece of paper on the table in front of him.
The evaluation is to be completed by Oct. 31, according to the order signed by Turpin.
Moments later, Bernard was handed a notice of his next hearing date to sign. A bailiff held out a blue fountain pen, making sure the tip was pointed away from him as Bernard took it. The teen leaned in close to the document on the table, his eyes just above the top of the pen and inching closer to it as he scrawled his name. That's when the group of bailiffs circling him stepped closer, appearing to relax only when Bernard handed back the pen.
With the arraignment over, Bernard stood up to be ushered out of court. He looked again to the back of the courtroom, made one last nod of acknowledgement to someone, and left.