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5-minute ruling: Jury says death penalty defendant competent to stand trial

POSTED: March 9, 2009 11:43 p.m.

Lawyers duel

Watch closing arguments in the competency trial of murder defendant Cornelio Zamites.

SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Forensic psychologist Dr. Enrique Suarez gives his opinion on the competency of Cornelio Zamites on Monday afternoon in Hall County Superior Court. Suarez said he believes Zamites is competent to stand trial.

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It took a jury less than five minutes to decide that a man accused of abducting, raping and strangling a 4-year-old girl is mentally competent to stand trial.

The parents of murder victim Esmeralda Nava smiled in the courtroom gallery as the verdict was announced in the one-day competency trial of 28-year-old Cornelio Zamites.

Prosecutors in 2006 filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Zamites, charged in the girl’s June 2005 murder. Defense attorneys for Zamites argued that he is mentally retarded and incompetent to stand trial.

At issue for jurors in Monday’s special civil trial in Hall County Superior Court was whether Zamites understood the nature and object of the court proceedings against him, whether he understood his place in those proceedings and whether he could assist his attorneys in his defense.

Josh Moore, a defense attorney with Georgia’s Office of the Capital Defender, noted that one court-appointed expert who evaluated his client expressed concerns about his ability to effectively communicate.

Zamites scored an IQ of 67 in testing by forensic psychologist Angel Lopez, according to testimony.

Lopez died of cancer earlier this year and an excerpt of his report was read to the jury by Moore.

"He knows he can talk with his attorney, however, he lacks a full appreciation of what that entails in a criminal case," Lopez wrote.

Lopez found that Zamites’ IQ was in the "extremely low range"

"His cognitive ability contributes to his poor appreciation of the ramifications of the charges and the consequences," Lopez wrote.

The doctor also said Zamites’ poor verbal comprehensions skills made it difficult for him to consult with his lawyers.

Zamites sat throughout the hearing expressionless, looking down at the defense table as he listened on headphones to a Spanish-language interpreter translating the proceedings.

A separate expert hired by the prosecution believed that Zamites may have not been completely honest in the testing of his mental abilities and found his IQ to be 82, still considered a low average but not extremely low.

"He is well above the ranges of someone we consider to be mentally retarded," Dr. Enrique Suarez testified.

Suarez spent about six hours evaluating Zamites and asked him about his understanding of the criminal justice system.

When asked if he knew what he was charged with, Zamites reportedly replied, "that I raped and killed a young girl, and kidnapped her."

When asked if he knew the meaning of the death penalty, Zamites responded, "That they kill me," according to Suarez.

Zamites was able to accurately describe the roles of the defense, prosecution, jury and judge.

District Attorney Lee Darragh told the jury in his closing argument that it was not up to the jury to decide whether Zamites was mentally retarded, but whether he understands the court proceedings, his place in them, and could assist his attorney.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I would submit to you Cornelio Zamites knows more about the criminal justice system than the average person," Darragh said.

Darragh noted that Zamites, a Mexican national, was able to get and hold a job, buy a car, obtain insurance and perform many other tasks in a foreign country where he does not speak the native language.

"This person is not mentally retarded," Darragh said. "He has a great deal of sense about how to get along in the environment in which he finds himself."

Moore told the jurors that though the trial only lasted a day, "this is a very important case; the consequences are tremendous."

No date has been set for Zamites’ death penalty trial.



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