COLLIER COUNTY —
BOOKMARK DAMAS SECTION
The effort to save the life of Mesac Damas gains full steam in 2010.
As the self-confessed killer of his wife and five children remains in a holding pattern in jail, his lawyers will begin a long — and expensive — quest to answer a crucial question: Who, exactly, is Mesac Damas?
Jurors may lean upon their discoveries to determine if the native Haitian should receive the death penalty or be spared, criminal attorneys say. The innocence-guilt phase of the trial will be straightforward, they forecast. The penalty phase, comparable to a second trial, will be hard fought.
“The only question is whether he lives or dies,” said Fort Myers criminal attorney John Mills.
Damas, 33, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder for the slayings of his wife, Guerline Damas, 32, and his five children. The children were Meshach “Zack,” 9; Maven, 6; Marven, 5; Megan, 3; and Morgan, 19 months.
The victims were discovered on Sept. 22 in various rooms of the family’s North Naples house. Each had a cut throat and multiple stab wounds.
Damas fled to Haiti, where he was captured days later. He told a Daily News reporter that his mother-in-law’s influence made him commit the killings and that he wanted to be executed. Prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty in late November.
The suspect remains at the Naples Jail Center, where he is on suicide watch, Collier County Sheriff’s officials say. He is allowed no visitors, save his lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando.
Orlando’s road is a difficult and pricey one, according to Miami-Dade County assistant public defender Stephen Harper, who works capital cases in the 11th Judicial Circuit and has 25 years of experience as a defender.
“The defense has a tremendous burden of looking at everything about this man and his life and synthesizing what this man did, when he did it and why he did it,” Harper said.
That burden means identifying and paying experts, from psychiatrists to brain scan analysts to guides and translators in Haiti, where attorneys or their aides will dig deep into Damas’ past. Education records, medical visits, even a test for pollutants in the tap water at Damas’ childhood home in Haiti may be scrutinized.
“Literally from pre-natal,” said Mills.
Jurors must receive the fullest picture of Damas and his background if they are to judge his life, both attorneys said. In adherence to Florida law, should Damas be convicted, the panel will be asked to weigh mitigating factors presented by defense attorneys against the aggravating factors of the case, such as its brutality and the fact that children were killed. By majority vote, jurors will choose to recommend either death or life in prison. The judge will make the final decision.
The question of mental illness may loom large in the penalty phase. Questions of intent, self-control and awareness of right and wrong could be argued, Harper said.
Orlando will have help in his task. He’ll name a second attorney to aid in the defense, and he may hire or appoint someone to coordinate Damas’ background investigation. But he’ll be faced with difficult decisions of what he needs, how much he can spend and whether he should — or even can — ask for more money.
Public Defender Kathy Smith said that although her office will provide Orlando whatever he needs, a tight budget can’t be ignored. The office worked about 50,000 cases in 2008, she said. Funding is set at a flat rate by the Legislature.
“We have to make choices as to where we spend the limited dollars, keeping in mind the Florida Bar requirement, we prepare the mitigating factors,” she said.
When is one test too many? How much should attorneys pay for experts, and of what quality? Damas’ counsel may grapple with such questions.
“I’d say the defense is going to have to fight very, very hard to get the resources to defend this man,” said Harper.
It is a fight that will likely take place on paper, as Damas waits in his jail cell.
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