A Pasco murder suspect was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair Thursday and his defense attorney said he still can't communicate with his client.
But almost eight months after Jose Garcia-Morales was considered incompetent to stand trial and sent back to a state mental hospital, a Franklin County judge ruled the 28-year-old now has the capacity to assist in his in own defense.
Judge Carrie Runge ruled Garcia-Morales was competent after a hearing in Franklin County Superior Court on Thursday where the defense chose not to have any expert witnesses testify.
Garcia-Morales is accused of gunning down a couple in their east Pasco home three years ago. He is charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder for the Dec. 10, 2008, shooting.
His trial is set for Feb. 6.
Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor, a special prosecutor on the case, said the state believes Garcia-Morales is feigning incompetence and choosing not to talk to his attorneys or participate in evaluations.
Mo Spencer told the judge that he and his co-counsel, Shelley Ajax, agreed to let the court decide what to do, but said there will be problems if the case moves forward.
"We still cannot communicate with our client. ... Before he was not speaking at all. This time he spoke, but when he speaks he speaks in tangents," Spencer said. "When I ask him if the sky is blue, he says, 'I like eggs.' It's incoherent."
Spencer said Dr. Philip Barnard, the psychologist hired by the defense for a second opinion, did not write a report because "we essentially don't know what's happening."
Barnard previously testified that Garcia-Morales was severely depressed, mentally incompetent and had no reason to fake his symptoms.
Spencer said they have reports that his condition improves when he is at Eastern State Hospital, but appears to change when he returns to the Franklin County jail.
"For us to put on a defense, he still has to be communicative with us," he said. "We're really leaving it in the court's hands. We're at a loss."
Bloor disagreed with Spencer's description of how Garcia-Morales' condition changes depending on his location, and said history shows Garcia-Morales changes behavior when a competency hearing is pending.
"He deteriorates immediately before an evaluation is to take place," Bloor said. "He becomes bad, he becomes uncommunicative, right at the time when it matters. After it matters, he becomes well."
In April, Runge recommended Garcia-Morales be sent to Eastern StateHospital again to try to restore his competency, but he remained in the jail until August.
During that time, his brother, Ramon, was convicted of fatally shooting Alfredo Garcia and critically injuring his wife, Maria Ramirez de Garcia.
Ramon is serving a 67-year prison sentence.
A Franklin County corrections officer reported that within days of Ramon's sentencing, Jose "snapped out of it" and began to use his out-of-cell time taking showers, joking and ordering items from the commissary, court documents show.
Jose was sent to Eastern State Hospital on Aug. 17 and staff reported he was laughing, speaking in English, having fun with peers, greeting staff and smiling throughout the day.
He socialized with other Hispanic patients, flirted with a female patient, drew pictures for other patients and did not "appear to be exhibiting any overt signs or symptoms of a mental illness or mood disorder," documents said.
That behavior continued until Sept. 28, which was two days before his scheduled competency interview. Staff reported Garcia-Morales then refused to speak to staff or eat meals and wouldn't explain the change in his behavior, documents said.
On the day of his interview, he "sat slumped in his chair, dull, mute and unresponsive," documents said.
Dr. William Grant, the Eastern State psychologist, determined Garcia-Morales was malingering.
"True depression does not completely and rapidly remit when external circumstances change, remain in remission for six weeks, and precipitously recur immediately prior to a meeting that could lead to return to earlier circumstances," he wrote in his report.