A Hall County jury could be empaneled this spring to decide whether a man facing the possibility of the death penalty is competent to stand trial.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin said during a Friday pre-trial hearing for Cornelio Zamites that she hoped to hold his civil competency trial at the end of April. Should Zamites, charged in the 2005 rape and murder of a 4-year-old girl, be found competent, a death penalty trial could possibly be held in late September, Gosselin said.
Jurors will be asked to decide whether Zamites understands the nature and object of the proceedings against him, whether he understands his role in those proceedings, and whether he can ably assist his attorneys in his defense. Zamites’ attorney, Josh Moore of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, maintains Zamites is incompetent.
If found incompetent, Zamites would be institutionalized in a state mental health facility until he was found competent to stand trial.
A court-ordered evaluation has already been performed. In preparation for the competency trial, both the prosecution and defense will get a chance to have independent experts evaluate Zamites.
Hall County taxpayers may be paying for the defense evaluation, rather than the state-funded public defender office that handles death penalty cases for indigent clients and typically covers those costs. Moore said a budget crunch in his office has created uncertainty over when experts hired by the defense can be paid, if ever.
"We have been told money for experts is not currently available," Moore said. "I’m disinclined to contract with experts with the specious promise that one day they’re going to get paid, and that’s the situation we find ourselves in, unfortunately," Moore said.
Gosselin said she would go over the defense’s cost estimates for an expert, which generally are not a matter of public record, and consider a request for county funds.
Asked when he would be ready to try the death penalty case, should Zamites be found competent, District Attorney Lee Darragh suggested August.
Moore said his timeline was dependent on how much preparation his office could get done between now and then.
Death penalty defenses often involve in-depth research of a defendant’s background, in hopes of finding mitigating evidence that could persuade a jury to spare a person’s life in the penalty phase.
Zamites’ case "involves witnesses and people and places far, far away from here," Moore told the judge.
"For an individual who grew up his entire life in a tiny little village in Mexico, it’s a complicated thing," Moore said. "It’s not like having a defendant who grew up in Dahlonega or something."
Zamites, 27, is accused of abducting 4-year-old Esmeralda Nava, the daughter of his friends, and sexually assaulting and choking her to death near his home on Pratt Reece Road on June 26, 2005. He was the subject of an intense manhunt until being captured in woods near his home four days after the girl’s death.
Zamites was indicted in September 2005 and Darragh filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty in June 2006.