BLOG: Mesac Damas' competency hearing ends, judge says he'll release decision next week

Accused killer Mesac Damas attends a competency hearing in Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker's courtroom on Thursday, June16, 2011, in Naples.  Three doctors will testify to the competency of Mesac Damas and will determine weather he will be able to stand trial.  During the hearing two out of the three physiologist brought in to testify believe that Damas is competent to stand trial, but ultimately the final decision is left to the judges discretion.  Manuel Martinez/Staff

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Accused killer Mesac Damas attends a competency hearing in Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker's courtroom on Thursday, June16, 2011, in Naples. Three doctors will testify to the competency of Mesac Damas and will determine weather he will be able to stand trial. During the hearing two out of the three physiologist brought in to testify believe that Damas is competent to stand trial, but ultimately the final decision is left to the judges discretion. Manuel Martinez/Staff

— The Mesac Damas competency hearing today concludes with the end of psychologist Frederick Schaerf's testimony, and Collier County Circuit Judge Franklin Baker promises to release a decision next week.

"I think I'll have to go back and look at everything before I make an order," he told the courtroom.

The judge will have his own notes, as well as the reports of the three psychologists to help him form a decision.

Damas left the courtroom without a word. He appeared more subdued compared to previous court hearings and was allowed to stay in the courtroom through almost all of the hearing.

If Damas is deemed competent, the likely next step in the case is a pair of hearings on whether Damas can ditch his attorneys and represent himself.

Baker will soon set a date for the next status hearing, expected to be in July.

POSTED AT 12:01 P.M.

The third, and final, psychologist to evaluate Mesac Damas concluded the defendant is malingering, or faking illness, to avoid difficult questions.

Dr. Frederick Schaerf told Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker that Damas has the ability to answer questions but that he typically chooses not to.

Like Michael Herkov, the psychologist who testified before him, Schaerf turned to jail records and jail staff to understand how Damas acts daily. He found the defendant's behavior is typically calmer when he lacks an audience.

Damas' religiosity is not delusional, Schaerf said, but a mechanism to avoid answering specific questions. However, Damas understands the charges against him, knows his attorneys and is capable of working with them.

"I think he chooses not to, most of the time," Schaerf said.

Notably, Damas has remained quiet through much of this hearing, keeping his head bowed or holding his hands to his face as if praying or in thought.

Kathleen Fitzgeorge, the defense attorney, is now questioning Schaerf.

POSTED AT 11:09 A.M.

A second psychologist presents a different take on Damas' competency.

Dr. Michael J. Herkov, a forensic psychologist and professor at the University of Florida, told Collier County Circuit Judge Franklin Baker that Mesac Damas meets the requirement of competency but that he chooses not to help his attorneys.

Unlike Robert Silver, the psychologist who said he couldn't get Damas to answer his questions, Herkov said he found Damas indirectly answered his questions. When Herkov asked if Damas understood the charges against him, or the penalties, the doctor received no answer, he said. But Damas volunteered to jail staff that he killed his "beautiful wife" and children, Herkov, and he told the doctor that the prosecutor wanted to kill him. Both answers suggest Damas is aware of his situation.

"He has the ability to tell someone what happened that day," Herkov told Baker. "He just chooses not to."

Under questioning by Dave Scuderi, one of the prosecutors, Herkov disputed Silver's diagnosis that Damas suffered from delusional disorders and grandiosity. Although Damas preached at Herkov, he never suggested he had a special relationship with God, the doctor reported.

"He said anyone who has faith and is a sinner can have this relationship," Herkov said. "It's not just him."

Jail records also suggest that Damas is not manic, Herkov said. Manic episodes last days, Herkov said; Damas' moments of excited preaching are limited and depend on his audience, Herkov said. He pointed to jail notes in which Damas consults with a doctor about his diet, speaks clearly to staff and demonstrates appropriate behavior.

Defense attorney Kathleen Fitzgeorge is now questioning Herkov's evaluations and conclusions. She recalls Herkov's earlier statement that Damas knew the name of one of his attorneys and, according to records, once sought a private attorney.

"Did at any point in time Mr. Damas suggest he knew what an attorney would do?" she asks.

"No, he didn't answer those questions," Herkov replies.

Fitzgeorge then challenges Herkov's conclusion that Damas suffers no delusions in his religiosity. She points to a moment in his report in which Damas said God instructed his actions.

"Would you agree that he possibly feels God is talking to him?" Fitzgeorge asks.

Herkov says he doesn't believe Damas was referring to a hallucination, or to voices. Fitzgeorge presses him, and she asks if direct messages from God would indicate a mental illness.

"Absolutely not," Herkov says. "Having God speak to you -- there are Christians around the world who believe God speaks to them."

POSTED EARLIER

Two out of three doctors to testify today believe Damas is competent, the court has learned through early testimony in Damas' competency hearing.

The first doctor called by Damas' defense team, psychologist Robert Silver, is in the minority position: He believes Damas to be incompetent due to a delusional disorder he unknowingly uses "to immunize himself from guilt."

"In Mr. Damas' case, he believes he no longer has to take heed of the material world...in other words, he feels he's immune to man's law and only (responsible) to God's law," Silver testified.

Silver said Damas' delusions make him incapable of understanding the legal process and require treatment.

Montecalvo, the prosecutor, challenges Silver's conclusions. He notes the doctor never consulted jail medical records during his first visit with Damas, in October 2010, when Silver walked away believing Damas was bipolar. Silver returned to the jail for a second evaluation in June, after he became aware of the other two doctors' conclusions and the existence of the records. He then changed his diagnosis.

"When you went in there, were you of the opinion that you were going to find him incompetent, no matter what?" Montecalvo asked.

"Of course not," Silver responded.

Baker has also indicated how he'll handle an unruly Damas. During each of two outbursts, Damas has been sent outside of the courtroom briefly, after which he has returned calmer. Baker said a third outburst would result in a dismissal from the courtroom, with the proceedings piped into a broadcast Damas can see.

During one of his outbursts, Damas' father, seated in the court gallery with Damas' mother, bolted upright from his seat and pleaded with his son: "Mesac, quiet! Please, Mesac, quiet!"

The family of Guerline Damas, one of the victims, is also observing the hearing.

State Attorney Steve Russell, present at the hearing's start, has since left.

POSTED EARLIER

Accused killer Mesac Damas' capacity to stand trial is to be argued in court today during a long-scheduled and oft-delayed competency hearing

The evidentiary hearing, likely to last hours and involve the testimony of psychiatrists who evaluated the defendant, will determine if Damas can proceed in his case or if he needs temporary treatment in a state hospital.

How serious is the hearing? State Attorney Steve Russell is at the prosecution's table.

Russell is named as lead prosecutor in the case, but he's left most of the duties to this point to assistant state attorneys Rich Montecalvo and Dave Scuderi.

Damas, 34, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the 2009 slayings of his wife, Guerline, 32, and their five children. The victims' bodies were found in the couple's North Naples home with throats cut.

One question of today's hearing is how Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker will handle an unruly Damas. In every prior hearing, Damas has caused an outburst, speaking over Baker and directly to TV cameras and ignoring the instructions of his attorneys and the judge.

The hearing has drawn a crowd: Students from Teen Academy, a program sponsored by the Sheriff's Office, are jammed into the first four benches of the courtroom gallery.

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