Crime

With a history of concussions, Naesean Howard’s behavior changed in years before stabbing

Jon Mettus | Senior Staff Writer

Naesean Howard, right, is shown with his attorney, Ralph Cognetti, last February in Syracuse City Court. Howard pleaded guilty to an April 2016 stabbing incident.

For years, former Syracuse football player Naesean Howard heard voices in his head, experienced stark personality changes and woke up from dreams crying, records obtained by The Daily Orange show.

The records, never before disclosed, reveal the struggles Howard faced in school and in everyday interactions. In letters, Howard’s family members, former coaches, high school principal and others around him wrote that his behavior changed in the years leading up to April 2016, when Howard stabbed former teammates Chauncey Scissum and Corey Winfield. Those who know Howard said he turned from outgoing to sheltered, from team captain to distanced, from peaceful to — at times — violent.

Last month, Howard, a 21-year-old graduate of West Genesee (New York) High School, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree assault, one count of second-degree assault and one count of criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. That Howard was given only one week to decide whether to plead guilty or proceed with trial was unfair, his defense team and family members said.

During a court hearing in September 2016, Howard requested that he be remanded into custody. When that was not honored, he purposefully disobeyed a stay-away order by going to the Syracuse University campus anyway. He was promptly arrested. Around that time, Howard declined to take recommended anti-depressant or antipsychotic medications. He refused family visits while at the Onondaga County Justice Center in downtown Syracuse. He ceased telephone contact and expressed disinterest in pursuing testing and evaluation arranged by his defense team, records show.

On Dec. 16, 2016, Ralph Cognetti, Howard’s attorney, said Howard would undergo a series of medical tests to discover if he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease associated to repeated hits to the head. Cognetti said during the pretrial that if there’s a link between his concussion history and decision-making, the intent element of his alleged-crime could be negated.

“Then we’ve got a tool to use either at trial or in negotiations that will perhaps get a lesser charge,” Cognetti said.

Howard was approved to use neuropsychologist Jerid Fisher from Rochester, New York. On Dec. 23, Fisher met with the defense and interviewed Howard. Another meeting between Fisher and Howard was scheduled for February 2017.

But in January, Howard was given only one week to decide whether to accept the plea or proceed with trial. His mother, Shaquoya Howard, said the court system pushed for a resolution in the case without testing and mitigation, which she said “is still puzzling to us and seems unfair.”

Richard Luciani, a social worker and mitigation specialist in Syracuse, suggested in court papers that Howard’s mental health history was not exposed because of the case’s speedy process. Luciani, who was hired by Cognetti, hoped the records would be useful in trial.

The records, obtained by The Daily Orange last month, suggest the head hits Howard suffered in Pop Warner football from the age of 10 through high school may have contributed to his decision-making on the day of the stabbing. Luciani said he believes Howard’s actions were influenced by an undiagnosed mental health condition and potential neuro-chemical imbalance that did not get exposed.

Luciani declined to comment on this story.

Brian Rieger, director of the State University of New York Upstate Medical University Hospital’s Concussion Center, declined to comment on Howard’s case, but offered insight on concussions overall. He said the most dramatic effects from concussions are seen one or two weeks after the concussion. When concussions overlap, they can have lasting effects.

“While functioning seems to return to normal,” Rieger said, “there can be changes in the brain that persist for a period of time after that.”

The records suggest Howard may have suffered from the effects of repeated hits to the head since he turned 8 or 9 years old. That’s when he began playing football with a helmet. From that point on, his mother said he was “always playing catch-up” in class, was embarrassed to read in front of the class and began to shudder.

Howard also struggled to interpret teachers’ instructions, describing professors as choppy. He said he reads slowly, is sensitive to light and gets headaches when he reads.

Howard, who began playing sports at age 4, dreamed of playing football at SU since he turned 10. He accepted a full scholarship to SU because he wanted to set an example for local inner-city student-athletes. Howard’s mother remembers when he would hit a player then pick them up, tap them on their helmet and say, “Good run, man.”

But since elementary school, he wouldn’t talk to other students “because the voices told me not to,” he said, according to records. His mother thought he was shy and did not know he heard voices. Howard, who has a family history of schizophrenia, suffered from hallucinations and felt paranoid that people might attack him, records revealed. He denied drug or alcohol use.

The sport management major began living at SU in summer 2014, when he took a Writing 104 class. He struggled to comprehend the assigned readings, which took him an “inordinate” amount of time to complete.

He soon underwent an assessment of his “poor reading skills” through the SU Office of Disability Services. A psycho education evaluation report from the office, dated Sept. 11, 2014, reveals his long-standing struggles in school and details several problems that hindered him as a student. Howard usually received more time than other students to complete assessments.

He sustained a concussion while playing football in 10th grade. As a result, he said, sometimes he woke up crying, upset by the content of his dreams. He reported bad dreams that interrupted his sleep about once a month during high school. He said he slid into bed at 10 p.m., but didn’t fall asleep until midnight.

A series of events also may have contributed to his behavioral changes, records show. Howard’s cousin was stabbed and killed at a party in October 2013. Four months later, the brother of that cousin was shot and killed. Howard recalled seeing his cousin five days before he was shot and feels as though he should have prevented it. His friend Sherman was shot and killed in 2012, and his paternal grandmother died in 2011.

“On any given day, it could happen to me,” Howard said, according to the records. “I feel like spending as much time with my family as I can.”

The family deaths “changed his mood,” and he found himself “daydreaming about these individuals and the tragedy.” He said his listening skills are good “unless I am daydreaming.” During a hearing last month, Howard asked the judge to repeat himself. “Sorry, I was daydreaming,” Howard said.

Medical records from St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center show Howard was prescribed to take medication for schizophrenia. The report states Howard heard voices “telling me that people don’t like me, don’t be close to your parents.”

In the years leading up to the stabbing, Howard called his cousin, Sterling Lowry, to explain voices he heard in his head that urged him to “do bad and harmful things to people,” Lowry said.

“My cousin knew that something was wrong in his head but he felt there was just nothing he could do to help himself,” Lowry said. “When things started to turn within himself mentally no one knew how to react and, sadly, he didn’t either.”

Tiffany Rush, who worked with Howard at On Point for College, a nonprofit college access and retention program downtown, lauded his personality, willingness to learn and openness. But Howard grew less outgoing, less talkative and secluded. Howard once came to her office on an 80-plus degree day wearing a sweater, she said.

“I was concerned,” Rush said. “I tried to engage him in conversation like we used to, but it appeared that he was not interested or was unsure of what I was saying. My feelings were hurt, but I knew then that the fun and loving Naes was nowhere around and that Naes needed help.”

His mother wrote that she noticed changes in Howard after he completed an overnight recruiting visit at SU during his senior year of high school. Howard declined to participate in family activities and “started to believe that someone was going to harm him and his family.”

“He began not to trust no one, not myself, my husband, siblings, friends or our pastors,” Howard’s mother wrote. “He started to feel alone and would often stay in his room in the darkness. We wondered if the concussions he experienced had played a role in our son’s drastic behavioral change.”

Serena Jackson, director of Day Habilitation Services at Community Options and Howard’s godmother, said she believes the direct hits Howard took on the gridiron may have altered some of his mental function.

“A once strong of sound mind individual,” she wrote in court records, “has been reduced to a mere shadow of himself.”

Sherria Sparks, a nurse manager at Upstate Medical University Hospital, has known Howard for 15 years because her son played football with Howard. She recalled a time when, at a restaurant, Howard stopped her son from entering the building until the women entered. Citing Howard’s leadership qualities, Sparks said the stabbing happened because of “some undiagnosed mental health issue possibly related to post-concussion syndrome.”

Coyseana, Howard’s 24-year-old sister, said she noticed small changes late in Howard’s senior of high school. He grew “boisterous” and strayed away from the family. He would confide to her about voices he heard in his head.

“I always wondered if the many concussions he received during his football career had anything to do with it,” Coyseana wrote. “However, I was never concerned too much because my brother has always been a non-violent, sweet and thoughtful person.”

Adam Wierbinski played football, basketball, baseball and track and field with Howard. An offensive lineman at University at Albany, Wierbinski said that in weight workouts, team practices and in class Howard “never once” got into fights or disputes with anyone. He showed no signs of violence outside of what his position required him to do, Wierbinski said.

But at around 6 p.m. one Saturday last April, Howard pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed two of his former teammates at a South Campus party. Assault charges, a suspension from SU, a trespassing arrest and a 10-year sentence ensued. Last week, Howard was transferred to a maximum-security prison.

“I’d rather be in prison than out of prison, to stay safe from everyone,” Howard said, according to records. “I really want help. These voices are destroying me.”

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