A judge refused Thursday to abruptly end the murder trial of Jose Garcia-Morales, saying the defendant is choosing to interrupt the court with his Spanish-speaking rants.
Defense lawyer Moe Spencer opened Thursday's proceedings by asking the judge to grant a mistrial and order another competency evaluation for his client.
The motion came a day after Garcia-Morales had a series of outbursts while in the courtroom, both outside the presence of the jury and while seated before the 90 prospective jurors.
Spencer described his client's comments as delusional, incoherent, babble and accusatory.
He said after talking with co-counsel Shelley Ajax on Wednesday night, the two decided that Garcia-Morales' right to a fair and impartial trial may be affected if any Spanish-speaking prospective jurors understood what he said during the outbursts. What Garcia-Morales said was not interpreted for the court.
Garcia-Morales is on trial in Franklin County Superior Court for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, first-degree rendering criminal assistance and two counts of second-degree assault. All of the charges include firearm allegations.
The trial started Wednesday with jury selection.
Prosecutors allege that on Dec. 10, 2008, Garcia-Morales went with his older brother, Ramon, to confront Alfredo Garcia about money the brothers believed they were owed because they had been deprived of work in the fields.
Garcia, 42, was shot six times and died from his wounds. His wife, Maria Ramirez de Garcia, was hit four times. She survived but has trouble seeing out of her right eye and now uses a wheelchair.
Judge Carrie Runge pointed out that Garcia-Morales' behavior "has certainly changed dramatically" while the case has been pending for more than three years.
She said after repeatedly needing a wheelchair to come into court, Garcia-Morales walked in without any assistance Wednesday. He then purposefully removed the earbuds that are used to listen to the court interpreter and threw the device on the floor, she added.
"He's the one that is making these outbursts and choosing these outbursts," Runge told the lawyers. "There is absolutely no information that the court has as to what it is that Mr. Garcia-Morales is (saying) during these rants as apparently these rants and outbursts are in Spanish."
The judge also said she felt it was obvious that Garcia-Morales was well aware of other people in the courtroom because he would turn and look around, including once directly into a TV news camera.
Special Prosecutor Terry Bloor said the defense presented "an interesting argument."
"Some (of the outbursts) were heard by the jurors but as far as any damage to his right to a fair trial, I have no idea what that would be," said Bloor, a Benton County deputy prosecutor who's handling the Franklin County case because of a conflict. "More important, I don't think the defendant can create the reason for a mistrial by acting out and then asking for a mistrial."
Bloor told the court that if needed, he is prepared to call Franklin County corrections officers to testify about how Garcia-Morales' behavior changes dramatically when he walks through the courtroom door and again when he exits.
Bloor said the defendant engages in conversations while in jail. Also, during his stints at Eastern State Hospital, Garcia-Morales was observed acting fine with other people and then just before going into his evaluation to determine competency, he would become comatose, he said.
Spencer countered that he still thinks there is a competency issue with his client.
"Whether he's creating it or not creating it, I don't think he understands it," he said.
Runge ruled in December that Garcia-Morales is competent and can proceed to trial. That came after several visits to the state facility in Medical Lake, including a lengthy stay for mental health treatment, which included psychotic issues brought on by severe depression.
Prosecutors long have said that Garcia-Morales is feigning incompetence.
When Garcia-Morales first came into court Thursday, he sat down behind the defense panel but again refused to use the earbuds and covered his ears with his hands. Court interpreter Ana Armijo tried to get Garcia-Morales to calm down, telling him he needs to listen to her.
Garcia-Morales turned around and quickly smiled at his two sisters in the audience, then returned to his slumped over position ignoring the interpreters.
For the most part, he was silent for the rest of the day.
Later Thursday, a potential juror brought up the outbursts Garcia-Morales had before the entire group and said he believes the jury should be privy to anything the defendant says out loud in open court.
"Everything that the defendant says -- other than talking to his attorney, that I don't need to know about -- but if he is just going to be generally broadcasting to the courtroom during his trial, then I feel that everybody should know what he is saying," the man said.
Once the man left the courtroom, Bloor argued the juror validated his point that "if the defendant does have an outburst, it should be translated."
The defense asked to have the man removed from the pool, but Runge said there was no basis to exclude him from this round based on the individual interview.
"He does point out some things that I think are absolutely true," the judge said. "If Mr. Garcia-Morales was English-speaking and had outbursts, those outbursts would be known to the prospective jurors and to any jury that was assembled. Now his outbursts have been able to hide behind the language barrier."
Another juror, when asked by the defense, said she didn't know what Garcia-Morales said in court because she only knows a few Spanish words.
"It kind of made me question his mental capacity," she said.
The woman also said she may have a hard time sitting as a juror, because "who am I to judge somebody else?" She was kept in the jury pool.
Another man said Garcia-Morales' disruptive behavior Wednesday made it difficult for him to hear when Runge was reading the charges. He added that he questioned Garcia-Morales' emotional state, and wondered if he is sane and capable of standing trial.
And another potential juror said the defendant seemed agitated and upset. "I think my thought was, 'it might be a long trial,' " she said.
Both of those jurors remain in the final group.
The court dismissed the rest of the jury pool late Thursday, once the lawyers realized they had kept 39 people from individual questioning. That is enough to give each side eight challenges and still be able to seat a panel of 12 with two alternates.
The jury should be picked this morning, so the attorneys can give opening statements and start with witnesses and evidence Monday at the Franklin County Courthouse.