Daniel Pedraza has been found competent to stand trial for the February 2012 beating death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter Aubriana Coke. His capital murder trial is set for May 30. If convicted he could face the death penalty. (Text of Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson’s comments explaining his ruling follows the story).
At Pedraza’s competency hearing Tuesday, one mental health expert said the 24-year-old Arkansas National Guardsman suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while another said he doesn’t.
Dr. Antolin Llorente, a neuropsyschologist retained by Pedraza’s defense team, testified that Pedraza suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his service in Iraq and alleged childhood abuse. Llorente said Pedraza, as a child, witnessed his father abusing his sister.
Pedraza, Llorente says, is unaware of the trauma. He said Pedraza minimizes the “trauma” and has made “irrational statements and there is also a certain degree of mistrust, verging on paranoia, towards his own counsel and others alike as a result of his mental disorder, which he is unfortunately not aware of….”
Because of that, Llorente says, Pedraza is unable to assist his attorneys in his defense.
Llorente said though Pedraza may appear to lay persons as a psychologically healthy individual, he isn’t.
Dr. Pablo Stewart, who did not testify but issued a letter to the court, reached the same conclusion. “It is my opinion, which I hold to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Mr. Pedraza is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Stewart wrote. “This condition currently makes him unable to assist counsel and understand his legal proceedings.”
The state’s mental health expert disagrees with the two doctors.
Dr. Joao Ramos, a psychiatrist at the Arkansas State Hospital, testified that Pedraza has a history of alcohol abuse and anger issues but does not suffer from PTSD.
Ramos said Pedraza told him he is not cooperating with his attorneys because of a disagreement over the manner in which he is being defended. He said Pedraza does not believe he is suffering from PTSD and “would rather focus on the fact that he did not have anything to do with the death of his stepdaughter.”
He said Pedraza told him he had a good relationship with his parents, did not experience anything in Iraq that traumatized him, and despite what the defense-retained mental health experts and his estranged wife say, he does not have PTSD.
“He told his attorneys, ‘If they believe my wife, they should go represent her,'” Ramos said, quoting Daniel Pedraza.
Following about four hours of testimony by the two doctors, Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson found Pedraza fit to proceed and made a lengthy statement in court explaining his ruling. Gibson’s statement:
“The question before the court is whether or not the defense has met its burden by a preponderance of the evidence to demonstrate to this court that the defendant, due to mental disease or defect, or in this case PTSD, lacks the capacity to rationally understand what’s going on in this proceeding, and the charges against him. And secondly, whether or not, as a result of that defect, he is unable to assist counsel in his defense.
“The court has listened to the testimony of Dr. Llorente, a neuropsychologist, and has carefully reviewed his report, as well as the report recently submitted pursuant to an order of this court of Dr. Ramos, a psychiatrist, (and) a report by Dr. Pablo Stewart. Let me comment first on Dr. Stewart’s report…
“Dr. Stewart furnishes absolutely no basis in his 1-page letter for this court to attach any reliability as to his opinion. In other words, after he says he conducts 10 hours of interviews with the defendant, he does not provide a single direct quotation from this defendant which would support either a finding of PTSD or that he has some mental defect that would prevent him from rationally communicating with his counsel and cooperating with them. And, it is taken as a given that when a psychologist or psychiatrist finds… that a defendant is unfit to proceed… should supply in their report and their testimony even more direct quotations than the psychiatrist or psychologist that opines that they are fit to proceed because they are overcoming a presumption. They must convince the court that they themselves have some rational basis backed up by direct quotes from the defendant’s interview.
“Here, Dr. Pablo Stewart had 10 hours worth and I would expect to receive at least one, two or three direct quotes, even if he found him fit to proceed. I have none. I wouldn’t have called him as a witness either, whether he had a conflict or not.
“This moves me now to Dr. Llorente’s report. This court is impressed with one thing about Dr. Llorente: I believe he is a sincere individual after observing him on the witness stand. He more than wanted to volunteer information. I know at times he probably gave defense counsel heartburn when he did. That happens sometimes when you get a witness who likes to testify and expound. However that may be, Dr. Llorente provides very few direct quotes from this particular defendant and this court will not, in assessing the weight to give his report, go into any of the materials out there that describe the effectiveness and acceptability of using for instance, drawings, to assess a defendant’s competency to proceed. I won’t do that, not only because I don’t swing at soft pitches — I couldn’t take any credit for hitting them — but out of respect for him and what I perceive to be his sincerity. To take the report apart would be too easy.
“References to things in Mexico, such as voodoo and stuff having absolutely no factual basis in the record is inexplicable. The troubling part of the position of Dr. Llorente is… (he) basically says things about the defendant that — at least from the history of (Pedraza’s) Army records, DHS records, school records, whatever — are simply not true. Dr. Llorente tries to put a square peg in a round hole. For what strategic reason, I’m at a loss….
“Maybe (Pedraza’s father) went too far with whippings, maybe not, but there’s absolutely no record — court record or maltreatment record — that this young man was treated other than as he told the State Hospital psychiatrist: that he had a pretty good childhood. Why must we make more of it than that? Whether or not his father whipped him too hard one time or another may be a common experience of many people. The point being is this: Dr. Llorente’s report contains none of the tests normally given that supply any objectivity to his findings; rather, his findings are based on a selective interpretation of non-existent, non testimonial evidence.
“Going to the state’s report. First of all, it is extremely well-written and summarized: ‘Mr. Pedraza was born in a suburb of Mexico City, Mexico, to his mother Alejandra, and his father, Enrique. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, when the defendant was three or four years old. They moved again approximately one year later, and Mr. Pedraza grew up in Hamburg, Arkansas. His parents remained married throughout his childhood and raised the defendant together…’
“That’s the first few sentences. I haven’t got a report written like an English major who can string words together like that in a long time, even from the state. In other words, he tells the reader, in four sentences, what most lawyers, including this judge, would probably struggle to get out in a page… and you already have a picture: ‘Good relationship with his parents. Had enough food, clothing and necessities growing up. Did not experience any physical or sexual abuse.’ Indeed, there is no objective evidence of physical or sexual abuse in this record, offered by the defendant.
“Whether he witnessed his sister getting whipped or not does not rise to the level of rape… (an example of trauma cited in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM], a publication of the American Psychiatric Association that provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders).
There’s a difference between rape and seeing your sister get whipped. The factors that are listed in the DSM: witnessing someone being killed, death, near loss of life experiences, are certainly not in this record, nor are they in Dr. Llorente’s report that would support any finding. Neither is there any suggestion as to whether it is severe or acute, how long-lasting the symptoms were, when was the onset, what prompts their recurrence, and what, if anything, it has to do with talking to his lawyer, which brings me to the last point.
“Until this juncture, this court had no idea if he was getting along with his lawyers or not; it’s really none of my business. The reasons that he gave to the state’s psychiatrist are not only rational, but I should say, comport, to some extent with the facts of this case. He summed it up.
I said last summer that this is going to come down to the jury weighing the credibility of Victoria Pedraza against the credibility of Mr. Pedraza. He’s dead on. And if he believes that his counsel does not fully recognize that, he may be perfectly rational.
“He’s on trial for his life and I’m not saying it’s the total state’s case but the state has made a plea bargain… with Mrs. Pedraza to testify against Mr. Pedraza. Mrs. Pedraza is undisputedly the one, when police came to the house that offered a reason for the child’s injury and death that did not turn out to be true.
They were only together, as I recall, for about six months. They were only recently married. Look at the autopsy report. The most that she can receive is 20 years. Now, she must testify against him. Why would his trial lawyer do anything to call into question, his credibility….
“It seems, at least so far, his life history is consistent with what’s (in the records), that he was, in fact, truthful with the state’s psychiatrist. And as far as Victoria Pedraza’s opinion as to whether or not he has PTSD — I hope I never hear that again. Why wouldn’t she say it? True or not, she has every reason to assign to Mr. Pedraza every defect known to man. It’s in her interest to say he has it. When it comes to her word against his, what better thing to say? I have no idea whether she believes it or whether she said it. I certainly wouldn’t allow her opinion into evidence….
“I understand how people’s attitudes are about mental conditions and the prejudices against them, and I am very sensitive to whether or not someone suffers from something bona-fide and if I thought in any way, shape or form, that you suffered from any mental disease or defect that inhibited you from being able to communicate with counsel, I would so find. Neither the professional opinions here today, nor the history, including no applications for disability benefits from the VA, would support such a finding….
“I want you and your lawyers to communicate, but if you have a bona-fide reason, as a lay person by yourself in this thing, to register your rational concerns about having pursued this, I can certainly not use that as PTSD.
“Many times a case is open and shut… on capital murder, as far as ‘whodunit’ and so and so forth, and the whole trial is about punishment; this is not one of those cases. And what troubles the court in having to make these findings is — and I have been restrained in the findings I’ve made — is that I want a fair trial for both sides…
“I hope that you and counsel can come to a consensus. It’s not too late.
“As to the defense of this case, this court denies this motion for the reasons I’ve given and the tests that were administered by the state and the lack thereof by the defense.
“I understand that this other doctor that was referred to by Dr. Lorenz apparently found that you did not have PTSD and you were competent to stand trial…. Once that was known, it should give anyone pause to proceed further.
“Once, the state was criticized in a recent Supreme Court case for shopping for doctors and the defense raised it on appeal. The state was able to get around it by saying ‘ Oh, well the first psychiatrist at the State Hospital was too incomplete in his evaluation’ and that allowed the judge to appoint someone else. They skated on that.
“When you get an opinion you don’t want to go with, and apparently it is consistent with what you, Mr. Pedraza, believe, I would think twice before I go looking for another one, especially when it’s the other man’s life that’s on the line. And he has some right to say when it ain’t open and shut. That’s the real issue here.
“This court stands in recess.”