Crime - Sacto 911

Defense expert: Murder defendant Fleming likely had amnesia after fatal night

A sketch shows Orville “Moe” Fleming testifying Wednesday during his murder trial in Sacramento Superior Court.
A sketch shows Orville “Moe” Fleming testifying Wednesday during his murder trial in Sacramento Superior Court. Special to The Sacramento Bee

Facing a lifetime in prison, his marriage of 30 years ruined, his girlfriend dead, former Cal Fire battalion chief and academy instructor Orville Fleming was confronted Wednesday with his own firefighters’ vow to save and protect lives.

Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Noah Phillips concluded his questioning of the career firefighter Wednesday by reciting the Cal Fire oath.

“As a member of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, it is my duty to safeguard lives and property,” Phillips read, then said, “You did not follow that part of the oath. You are trained to make critical decisions in small windows of time, to make life-and-death decisions. Not only did you have that life, you taught that life.”

Fleming’s murder trial in the May 1, 2014, killing of Sarah Douglas neared its close in Sacramento Superior Court before Judge Sharon A. Lueras with prosecutor Phillips depicting Fleming as a narcissist who left his wife of 30 years only to kill a girlfriend he could not control.

Fleming, on the stand, testified he “allowed” Douglas to have champagne and other alcoholic beverages at their home and gave her a monthly allowance. He had arranged to have Douglas serve divorce papers and a bundle of flowers to his wife at the Fresno County grade school where she worked as a teacher, Fleming testified.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” Phillips said flatly, later walking Fleming back to the night he pinned Douglas on their bed and stabbed her to death in what Fleming testified was a “zombie” state.

In his cross-examination, Phillips grilled Fleming on his state of mind at the time of the killing as the firefighter repeated the “zombie” statements of his Tuesday testimony.

“I was sweaty. When I went into the kitchen, I felt like a zombie,” Fleming said.

Phillips’ follow-up came quickly, “‘Walking Dead’ or ‘Game of Thrones?’”

A defense expert testified earlier Wednesday that Fleming likely suffered a form of amnesia that blocked out moments of the deadly attack on Douglas.

Rahn Minagawa, a forensic psychologist and expert in traumatic stress called by Fleming attorney Peter Kmeto, said the 56-year-old Fleming could have sustained “disassociative amnesia” – the inability of a person to recall blocks of time due to a traumatic event that the person experienced.

The condition, Minagawa said, is a self-defense mechanism to protect against being overwhelmed by fear or other emotions, and is found among those who have engaged in combat, suffered major injury or have witnessed traumatic events.

Fleming, under questioning Tuesday by Kmeto, admitted in chilling detail to stabbing Douglas, 26, in the bedroom of the home they shared outside Elk Grove, but he said he could not recall strangling her. Fleming testified he “felt like a zombie” while walking into the home’s kitchen to grab a knife before returning the bedroom.

Phillips challenged Minagawa’s assertion of Fleming’s amnesia.

“You can’t confirm his amnesiac state,” Phillips said to Minagawa. “You either believe him or you don’t.”

Authorities say after the fatal stabbing, Fleming fled the home and hid in south Sacramento County underbrush for 16 days before being captured by a peace officer at a bus stop.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee