Saturday, December 5, 2009

Damas begins long legal road to murder trial


The first full fledged hearing for accused family killer Mesac Damas Friday signaled the start of a long legal process as prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare for trial.

Although a preliminary date of March 19 was scheduled for Damas, 33, the trial may take place long afterward because of complexities in the case. Those include intent by prosecutors to seek the death penalty, Damas’ confessions to authorities and the media, and questions about his mental state.

Damas, a former restaurant cook, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the slaying of his wife, Guerline Dieu Damas, 32, and their five children. The charges accuse Damas of slitting the throats of all six victims the night of Sept. 17, leaving their North Naples townhouse awash in blood.

Damas, wearing a bright-orange jail uniform, handcuffs and shackles, sat quietly during the hearing, except for saying “yes” in response to a question from Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker. Damas also turned when a friend or relative said, “Mesac,” to get his attention.

In preparing for his trial, defense attorneys first have to wade through 390 pages of documents and arrange depositions for as many as 80 witnesses who prosecutors say may testify.

State Attorney Steve Russell told Baker he intends to seek the death penalty, which sets up a list of legal requirements and procedures.

Baker ruled Friday he and Deputy Public Defender Michael Orlando are qualified to handle a death penalty case. Baker said he complies with all judicial rules on being qualified to preside.

Orlando said only one of his clients received the death penalty and the conviction and sentence were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. Russell, chief prosecutor, has handled death penalty cases.

“I wish they wouldn’t have” filed the notice to seek the death penalty, Orlando said. “I will prepare for that aspect of the case.”

Prosecutors weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances when deciding to seek the death penalty. In this case, a panel of prosecutors at the state attorney’s office recommended Russell seek the death penalty.

Those include whether the killings were “especially heinous, atrocious and cruel” and whether the killings were committed in “a cold and calculated and premeditated manner,” said Lee Hollander, a defense attorney and former prosecutor and police officer.

Mitigating circumstances defense attorneys might consider are that the defendant was “under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance,” Hollander said.

Another factor might be the defendant’s ability to comprehend “the criminality of his or her conduct ... was substantially impaired,” Hollander said.

Orlando also said complicating matters are Damas’ confessions to an FBI agent and reporters.

Damas has remained on suicide watch in the Collier County Jail since he was returned from Haiti, where he fled after the killings.

Orlando said he worries about his client’s mental state and Baker has appointed a clinical psychologist to evaluate Damas.

If Baker decides Damas is not competent for trial, he would be sent to a state hospital until he is deemed to be competent, Hollander said.

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