Crime - Sacto 911

Mental exam sought for suspect in deputies’ slayings in Sacramento, Placer

A SWAT team drives past Placer High School after the arrest of a suspect in the shooting death of two sheriffs officers from Placer and Sacramento Counties on Friday, October, 24, 2014 in Auburn. Another Placer county sheriff was wounded and a Sacramento motorist.
A SWAT team drives past Placer High School after the arrest of a suspect in the shooting death of two sheriffs officers from Placer and Sacramento Counties on Friday, October, 24, 2014 in Auburn. Another Placer county sheriff was wounded and a Sacramento motorist. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Lawyers for the man accused of gunning down two deputies last October have asked a judge to suspend court proceedings in the case and begin an evaluation of whether their client is mentally competent to stand trial.

Luis Monroy Bracamontes faces the death penalty in the slayings of Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Deputy Michael Davis Jr. The lawmen were shot during a daylong crime spree that authorities say was conducted by Bracamontes and his wife that stretched from Sacramento to Auburn.

Since his arrest, Bracamontes, 35, has made a series of bizarre court appearances during which he loudly pronounced his guilt and asked to be executed, and also mocked court proceedings.

His public defenders, Jeffrey Barbour and Norman Dawson, filed a motion June 30 that is scheduled to be heard in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday morning over whether Bracamontes is competent to face trial.

Barbour declined comment Thursday. But he and Dawson note in their motion that they have met with Bracamontes regularly for eight months and that, “based upon those meetings and other information known to counsel, we request the court suspend criminal proceedings and commence competency proceedings.”

State law does not allow a person to face trial if the defendant is mentally incompetent and cannot understand the proceedings or assist in his defense, Bracamontes’ lawyers argued.

Judge Steve White must decide whether there is “reasonable doubt” about Bracamontes’ ability to face trial and could order a mental evaluation to determine the defendant’s mental state.

The judge also may hear from the defense in a closed session “if the court finds there is reason to believe that attorney-client privileged information will be inappropriately revealed if the hearing is conducted in open court,” Bracamontes’ lawyers argued. His lawyers previously have sought to exclude media from the courtroom in the case. White rejected that request but has barred cameras.

If the judge orders a competency hearing and mental experts declare Bracamontes incompetent, he would be held in a state hospital until a doctor determines he is able to face trial.

White, a former Sacramento County district attorney, already has indicated that he is growing impatient with delays in the case. At the last hearing on May 29, White scheduled a Sept. 4 status conference and said he wanted to be able to set a date then for a preliminary hearing unless valid reasons for further delay were presented.

Bracamontes faces murder and other charges along with his wife, Janelle Monroy, 38, who faces life in prison.

The motion filed by Bracamontes’ legal team may postpone trial in the case for months, with one veteran Sacramento lawyer saying Thursday that White almost certainly will order a mental evaluation.

“If a defense lawyer says he expresses a doubt about a client’s competence, then there’s one choice: the judge is required to stop everything and schedule a hearing on his competency,” said William Portanova, a former state and federal prosecutor and current defense attorney. “That means he has to be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist, and that usually takes weeks.”

Rod Norgaard, Sacramento County chief assistant deputy district attorney, who is prosecuting the case along with Placer County Deputy District Attorney David Tellman, said Friday’s hearing is being held at the defense’s request.

“It’s the defendant’s motion,” Norgaard said. “The people will be there and the court will rule on it.”

Legal observers have said since Bracamontes’ first court appearances that they expected the defendant’s mental state to play a role in the case, especially since the February hearing during which he blurted out, “I killed them cops. I did it ... I’m guilty ... I want a date of execution.”

Delays in court proceedings over questions about a defendant’s mental state are common and do not mean that a suspect will escape punishment.

In 2010, Phillip Garrido’s mental competence was questioned as he faced charges of kidnapping Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991 when she was 11. His case was postponed for six months while he was evaluated, but Garrido eventually was sentenced to 431 years to life.

Similarly, Nicholas Teausant, a Lodi-area man accused of trying to join the Islamic State, has seen his case delayed in federal court in Sacramento for months because of questions over his mental state.

Portanova said he believes Bracamontes has been setting up a mental defense of some sort since his arrest.

“When I see a murder defendant putting on a clown show and laughing during court proceedings, my first instinct is to recoil in horror,” he said. “But I also suspect someone is setting up a competency issue.

“It’s pretty self-serving to act crazy when you’re looking at the death penalty.”

Portanova added that Bracamontes, a native of Mexico who was in this country illegally, showed no mental impairment as he “outmaneuvered the police and knew where to hide and how to hunker down.”

“These are not the actions of an insane man,” Portanova said.

If the effort to find Bracamontes incompetent fails and he heads to trial, the defendant still could plead not guilty by reason of insanity, in essence arguing that at the time of the killings he did not know what he was doing was wrong.

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