By AISLING SWIFT
Monday, October 26, 2009
A North Naples man accused of killing his wife and five children last month was arraigned today on six counts of premeditated murder.
Mesac Damas, 33, a cook at a local restaurant, was not in court, and neither were his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando or Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker. But the small court room was packed with news and TV reporters and cameramen, bailiffs and Linda Oberhaus, the executive director of the Shelter for Women and Children in Naples.
Orlando had already filed a not-guilty plea on Sept. 29 and Assistant State Attorney Dave Scuderi told reporters that Baker had set the case for a sounding on Nov. 25, a status check.
With that, the brief arraignment was over.
The arraignment came a week after Oberhaus and other shelter representatives met with about 15 members of the Haitian community during a Haitian Leadership Forum that enabled shelter representatives to share information about American laws and to learn more about the Haitian culture.
"We recognize that in the Haitian culture they operate differently," Oberhaus said before the arraignment. "From their perspective, women and children are considered property. ... In some cases, when a woman leaves, she dishonors the family and batterers use that to justify their actions."
The father of five faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted of the brutal slayings of Guerline Dieu Damas, 32, and their children: Meshach “Zack,” 9, Maven, 6, Marven, 5, Megan, 3, and Morgan, 19 months. Prosecutors haven't yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty.
Mesac Damas has been held without bond on suicide watch at the Collier County jail, a normal procedure in murder cases. It’s also common for a defendant not to show up for an arraignment when an attorney already has entered a written not-guilty plea.
Last month, Baker granted Orlando’s motion to appoint a forensic psychologist to determine whether Mesac Damas is competent to stand trial and assist him -- and if he was insane at the time of the crime.
Scuderi is assisting the lead prosecutor, State Attorney Steve Russell, whose co-counsel will be Assistant State Attorney Rich Montecalvo.
Collier County sheriff’s deputies were called to the Damas' rented townhouse on Sept. 19 after Guerline Damas hadn’t shown up for work at Publix. Deputies entered the home on Hampton Circle and found a bloody crime scene: Their bodies had been stabbed and their throats slashed.
Mesac Damas had fled to Haiti a day earlier, but was brought back by sheriff’s detectives after he confessed to a Daily News reporter and special agent Peter Kolshorn of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service following his arrest by Haitian police on Sept. 21.
Neighbors and relatives have said Guerline Damas had been packing her vehicle and intended to leave her husband in the days before their bodies were found.
A probation violation hearing was set for today before County Judge Rob Crown, but it was continued to January.
Mesac Damas was serving probation and taking anger management and batterers' classes after pleading to misdemeanor battery in June for hitting and choking his wife and causing their baby to fall to the ground in January. The probation violations involve leaving the county without telling his probation officer and getting arrested on a new offense.
Oberhaus said last week's leadership conference helped both the community and shelter representatives and another will be held with Haitian leaders in January to train leaders to teach the law to their community.
"We're giving them the tools to go back in their community," Oberhaus said. "They provided about as much information to us as we did to them."