Montezuma County District Court Judge Todd Plewe on Wednesday ruled that Jeremiah Paul Damron was competent to stand trial for the murder of his mother, whose body was found beaten and burned in his backyard outside Cortez a year ago.
Plewe’s decision ended a competency hearing with three expert witnesses, two who had evaluated Damron this year and found him competent to proceed to trial, and one who had found him incompetent in 2017.
All three stated it was possible that without ongoing treatment, Damron’s bipolar disorder could deteriorate to the point that he was no longer competent to proceed. None would speculate about his competency since their evaluations.
“My job as a judge is not to decide what might happen in the future, even if I think it is likely, even if I believe it might happen,” Plewe said. “My job is to decide what is happening right now.”
Plewe, quoting Colorado Revised Statute 16-85-105, reiterated that evaluations after Damron’s restorative treatment at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo found that Damron understood the proceedings against him and could assist his counsel in his defense.
After about three hours of testimony, Plewe found “by a preponderance of evidence” that Damron was competent to proceed, and he tentatively scheduled a preliminary hearing for early September.
Damron sat hunched over the defense’s table throughout the hearing, his arms and ankles shackled, but the binds on his hands loosened so that he could take notes. Less than a dozen people attended the hearing.
Arguments Wednesday often turned to Damron’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the 17 days of amnesia that Damron says he suffered at the time of his mother’s death. The expert witnesses emphasized the dynamic nature of his bipolar episodes, and said they could resurface during duress or a trial.
District Attorney Will Furse, of the 22nd Judicial District, argued that Damron met the Colorado standard for competency – understanding the legal proceedings and assisting in his defense – despite his bipolar disorder and amnesia.
While acknowledging that Damron’s competency could change if his mental condition deteriorated, Furse argued that previous rulings found that amnesia did not prevent defendants from assisting counsel.
Defense attorney John Moran argued that Damron’s amnesia rendered him incompetent to proceed because, in part, he could not recall the facts surrounding his mother’s death and contribute to his defense.
For Plewe, the case came down to the 2001 Colorado Supreme Court decision in People vs. Palmer, which found that amnesia by itself does not constitute incompetency unless it rendered a defendant unable to understand the proceedings or assist in his own defense. In this case, Plewe said, Damron met the state standard for competency even if he had experienced amnesia.
Earlier Wednesday, Furse and Moran questioned three psychologists who had evaluated Damron.
Maren Conway, a forensic psychologist at Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, testified via a video link that her evaluation in February found that Damron was competent to proceed, but she recommended psychological monitoring and medication as needed. After working with Damron during his restorative treatment in Pueblo, she testified that without ongoing care, Damron’s condition could deteriorate, and he could experience psychotic episodes.Durango psychologist John Ragsdale testified that his evaluation on June 6 found that Damron demonstrated a factual and rational understanding of his case, could assist in his defense, and was competent to proceed to trial.Susan Coykendall, a psychology professor at Mesa State University and a Western Slope psychologist for the Colorado Mental Health Institute, evaluated Damron in September 2017. Her report in October expressed concern about his “acquiescence” to counsel, which she described as apathy caused by a deep state of depression. She concluded that he could not assist counsel in his own defense.The mental health evaluations are sealed from the public.
A preliminary hearing in the case is expected to be held between Sept. 5-7. Hearings typically are required to be held within 35 days of a request, but Damron and Moran on Wednesday waived that requirement to accommodate the schedule.
Damron, now 37, was arrested on North Sligo Street by Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin and two Cortez police officers on July 20, 2017. Nowlin said officers had responded to a report of a homicide at Damron’s mobile home in the 7000 block of County Road 21.75, near County Road G.
The body of Kristie Damron, 62, was found in his backyard that morning.
Deputies had confronted Damron the night before the arrest in response to a report of domestic violence and assault. Nowlin said deputies were able to “de-escalate the situation” and remove Damron’s wife and son from the property.
Damron was charged with first-degree murder on July 28, 2017. The charge carries a minimum sentence of life in prison.