HONOLULU (KHON2) — Prosecutors said the man accused of punching a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant had been hearing voices weeks prior to the incident. Legal experts said Steven Sloan Jr.’s mental health will be a key component in his defense.

The 32-year-old was back in federal court for a detention hearing where a judge ruled that he must remain in custody because he poses a significant risk.

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Prosecutors told the judge that Sloan had been hearing voices for at least two weeks and questioned whether he had the mental competency to proceed with the hearing. The defense argued that Sloan is competent, and the judge agreed.

Sloan is accused of allegedly punching a male flight attendant unprovoked on a flight to Hilo on Thursday, Sept. 23. The plane returned to Honolulu where Sloan was arrested. Legal experts said prosecutors tend to come down hard on unruly passengers who act violently.

“Usually when there’s a physical assault, they’re not very lenient in dropping charges to a lesser degree. Right now, it’s a felony and in this type of case it’s unusual for a prosecutor to drop it down to a misdemeanor,” said Ali Silvert, a retired federal public defender.

Silvert has represented about 30 people for similar incidents. A felony charge means up to 20 years in prison.

“Given that there may be mental issues involved in what happened, if that is true and can be proven, then the government might be more sympathetic and allow Mr. Sloan to plead to a misdemeanor,” said Silvert.

Prosecutors also told the judge that Sloan has a history of drug abuse, which can also be a factor.

“If you have drug use or alcohol use that has affected your mental state of mind long-term, that is an issue,” Silvert added.

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Sloan is also charged with interference with a flight crew — which is a misdemeanor — that carries a one year sentence. Silvert pointed out that in most cases, both sides negotiate a plea deal instead of going to trial. Sloan is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Monday, Oct. 11.