VISALIA -- A Tulare County jury took less than two hours Wednesday to decide an Ivanhoe man is mentally competent to stand trial for the murder of sheriff's detective Kent Haws.
Jorge Gomez Banda, 21, has been locked up in Tulare County Jail since his arrest Dec. 17, the day Haws was gunned down while checking a suspicious person on a rural roadside near Ivanhoe.
Haws, a 38-year-old father of three, was shot four times, including once in the center of his forehead.
The murder case against Banda, with special allegations of killing a police officer and gang involvement, has been on hold since January, after Deputy Public Defender Neal Pedowitz asserted that Banda was not mentally competent to assist in his own defense.
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That triggered a special trial at which a jury had to consider whether Banda should be hospitalized until he could participate in a trial.
After the verdict, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Darryl Ferguson immediately reinstated the criminal case against Banda and set an Aug. 28 preliminary hearing. That's when Ferguson will determine whether there is enough for a murder trial.
Prosecutors say they won't decide until after the preliminary hearing whether to seek the death penalty.
During the past week of testimony, Pedowitz tried to prove Banda's competence is limited by both mental retardation and psychoses creating voices in his head since he was a teenager, rendering him incapable of understanding the legal proceedings or assisting in his own defense.
"I'm definitely disappointed," Pedowitz said later. "I think George needs to be at Atascadero [State Hospital]. I think he needs psychotropic medications to get rid of the voices so he's not distracted, so we can make him competent. Obviously the jury did not feel the same way I do."
Pedowitz immediately entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity for Banda.
In closing arguments earlier Wednesday, attorneys presented jurors with differing characterizations of Banda.
Pedowitz likened Banda to "a little kid in a man's body" who doesn't understand the charges against him. "I'm the guy who can't communicate with him," Pedowitz said in his statement. "If I can't have a discourse with him, I can't do my job."
Prosecutor David Alavezos described Banda as a "selfish and mean" suspect "trying to work the system" by feigning mental illness to avoid prosecution.
"I think the jury reached the appropriate verdict," Alavezos said later.
Pedowitz and Alavezos both said this verdict is only one step on a long legal road that may include another special trial, either before a jury or a judge, to decide whether Banda is mentally retarded; the guilt phase to determine whether Banda was the killer; a sanity phase, with the same jury charged with deciding whether he was sane when the crime was committed; and, perhaps, a penalty phase where jurors will decide whether Banda should receive the death penalty or serve the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
If, along the way, Banda is found to be mentally disabled or retarded, he cannot be sentenced to death.
In the audience throughout the competence trial were officials from the Mexican Consulate in Fresno. "Mr. Banda is a Mexican citizen," said Esther Romero, a consular representative, adding that Mexico does not have the death penalty. "Our mission is just to observe and be sure he has a fair trial."
Banda, wearing a white shirt and white pants as he sat next to Pedowitz, used headphones to listen to an interpreter and showed no outward reaction as the verdict was read.
"He sat there like a bump on a log," Pedowitz said.
Banda's parents and family cried as the court clerk read the verdict, and they left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. As they comforted one another outside court, Banda's older brother, Fernando, tearfully shouted toward television cameras, "You guys know it's not fair, you guys know that."
Haws' widow, Francis Haws, sighed and other relatives smiled slightly as the verdict was read. They also left the courtroom without commenting before huddling quietly with Alavezos in the hallway.
Alavezos declined to discuss the conversation, "but I can't imagine they wouldn't be relieved at this stage," he said.
In his closing argument, Alavezos likened the Banda case to the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in which actor Jack Nicholson's character fakes mental illness to get out of a prison sentence.
He referred to a video jurors saw Tuesday of Banda's interview with detectives hours after his arrest, the same day Haws was shot on a roadside near Ivanhoe. In the video, Banda told sheriff's detective Lupe Shade, "I was bored and I was stressed and I was already thinking to shoot" Haws as the detective approached.
Also in the video were remarks that Banda shot Haws because he didn't want to go to jail, Alavezos added. "That's an evil thought by an evil person ... but it's a rational thought."
The prosecutor said two court-appointed psychologists concluded Banda is competent to stand trial. He challenged a defense expert who said Banda is mentally retarded, psychotic and incompetent.
"He's selfish and mean," Alavezos said, "and now he's trying to work the system."
Pedowitz recounted testimony by one of the court-appointed doctors that Banda's score on a verbal language test was below the threshold for retardation.
"I don't know if this man ... even comprehends what the word 'bored' means," Pedowitz said of the taped confession.
He tried to counter Alavezos' depiction of Banda as "mean" and "evil."
"This is the same 'evil,' 'cruel' person who misted a bunny because he thought it was hot and almost drowned it," Pedowitz said, recalling testimony by Banda's brother, Fernando.
"I don't know how many of you are familiar with Steinbeck or 'Lenny', but that sure smacks of 'Lenny' to me," Pedowitz said of a mentally limited character in author John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
"Basically I'm representing a little kid in a man's body," he told jurors.