DAMAS FAMILY KILLINGS COVERAGE
ONE YEAR LATER:
- Year after slayings of Guerline Damas, five kids, relatives ask ‘did it really, really happen?’
- Confessed killer Mesac Damas wants to die, so should court system let him?
- Damas family slayings: Year later, still haunting lives of friends, family, deputies
- Jail phone call: Accused killer Mesac Damas talks to father about his slain family, Satan and adultery
MESAC DAMAS CONFESSION VIDEO:
DAILY NEWS STAFF JOURNALISTS TALK ABOUT THE CASE:
- THE FIELD: Naples Daily News staff writer describes how he obtained an interview with Mesac Damas
- THE FIELD: Visual Journalist Greg Kahn discusses being the first journalist at the Damas crime scene, and other observations from the field.
- THE FIELD: Staff Writer Steven Beardsley answers questions about his interview with Mesac Damas
Mesac Damas is competent to proceed in his death penalty case, a Collier Circuit judge ruled on Thursday.
The decision means Damas’ case will not immediately be delayed by treatment. Damas faces charges that he killed his wife and five children, Judge Franklin Baker issued the five-page order on Thursday, one week after three doctors testified about evaluations they conducted on the defendant.
Competency is the legal definition of a defendant’s ability to understand and participate in a court case at any one time. Questions of mental illness have surrounded Damas’ case since his 2009 arrest and through frequent court outbursts.
During last week’s competency hearing, two out of three doctors testified that Damas understood the charges against him and was capable of helping his attorneys, but that he chose not to.
In his order, Baker wrote that he found the two doctors’ testimony more compelling than a third doctor, who diagnosed Damas with “delusional disorder” and deemed him incompetent. Baker said his decision also stems from his own observations of Damas in court.
“More specifically, the Court finds that Defendant has the ability, if he so chooses, to cooperate with his lawyers and to manifest appropriate courtroom behavior,” the order stated. “If he chooses not to do so, he does so at his peril.”
A new status hearing is expected to be set in the case shortly.
Damas faces possible execution by the state if convicted of any of six charges of first-degree murder. The bodies of his wife, Guerline, 32, and the couple’s five children were discovered in the family’s North Naples home in September 2009, their throats cut.
The children were Zack, 9; Maven, 6; Marven, 5; Megan, 3; and Morgan, 19 months.
A spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office lauded Baker’s decision.
“With the judge’s ruling, we can now proceed more efficiently as we work towards a trial,” Samantha Syoen wrote in an email statement.
Neil McLoughlin, one of Damas’ three public defenders, said the decision speaks for itself.
“What’s there to say? Especially in death penalty cases, you always are concerned about your client’s mental health,” he said. “And let’s be honest, he exhibits bizarre behavior.”
Damas frequently speaks aloud during court hearings, invoking religion and questioning Baker’s authority. He confessed to a Daily News reporter shortly after the slayings, and he has repeatedly asked to be executed.
Two psychologists and a psychiatrist examined Damas between October 2010 and last week. Damas refused to participate in each evaluation, instead preaching at the three men.
One, psychologist Robert Silver, diagnosed Damas as bipolar after a first evaluation. After a second examination in June, he determined the defendant suffered delusions of grandiosity and was incompetent to proceed, failing to understand the charges and penalties he faced.
Psychiatrist Frederick Schaerf and psychologist Michael Herkov reached a different conclusion after their evaluations. Both consulted jail logs and medical records and decided Damas did understand the charges and penalties, based in part on his interactions with jail staff. They said he was capable of helping his attorneys but chose not to do so.
Baker noted the distinction between a defendant’s inability to assist in his defense and his willingness to do so. He also wrote that Damas’ possible mental illness has little bearing upon his competency.
“The fact that Defendant may have a mental illness is certainly relevant to the issue of competency, but it is not determinative,” he wrote.
The likely next question in the case is whether Damas should be allowed to represent himself, as he has repeatedly requested. Baker has promised to address the issue with Damas, and he suggested last week that, should the defendant be found competent, the court would explore it.
The court may also choose to again explore Damas’ competency down the road, if it feels his behavior merits it.