March 28, 2014

Mental state of Rock Hill accused double-murderer ‘crucial’ to whether he stands trial

Ronald Fred Gregory, 67, is charged with shooting his invalid wife and his 9-year-old granddaughter.

After a whirlwind week of double murder, two funerals, and the accused killer’s first court appearance, the legal case of Ronald Fred Gregory will pause while mental health professionals determine if he knew what he was doing when his wife and granddaughter were killed.

And even if some want swift justice, it won’t happen because Gregory’s rights – not the rights of the two people he allegedly killed – will now be the focus of the courts.

Testing also could help determine if Gregory’s suicide attempt and demeanor in court were real or attempts to try to avoid punishment.

Gregory allegedly shot his disabled wife, Barbara, 71, on March 21. Police also claim he then shot his granddaughter, Mia Rodgers, 9, before shooting himself twice. He also told police he committed the shootings, according to the incident report.

The mental competency testing that Gregory’s lawyers have said they plan to seek will likely have a role in prosecutors’ decision on whether to seek the death penalty, experts say. Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett declined to discuss the prosecution of the case.

Gregory survived the suicide attempt and was charged Thursday with the killings. But just minutes after Gregory was charged with two counts of murder, his two court-appointed lawyers said they had serious concerns about Gregory’s mental state at the time of the killings and his mental capacity to assist them in his defense. The lawyers are right to look immediately into Gregory‘s mental state and have him tested by health professionals, said Miller Shealy, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the Charleston School of Law.

“The lawyers have to look into it,” Shealy said. “It is crucial to any possible defense.”

A judge “will without a doubt” order the testing, Shealy said.

“This case clearly demands that the competency of a person accused of killing his wife and granddaughter be tested,” Shealy said. “This case looks like there is a strong issue of sanity at the time of the crime. This appears to be a case where the question is not did he do it, but why. The nature of the crime, the awfulnness of it, demands it.”

Jim Boyd, a Rock Hill defense lawyer for more than 30 years, also said that Gregory’s legal team “should, and must” have Gregory’s mental state at the time of the incident measured, along with his competency to stand trial. Gregory’s mental state at the time of the crime is vital to determine if Gregory was “legally insane” when Mia and Barbara Gregory were killed, Boyd said.

“The definition of insanity in South Carolina is could the person tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crimes,” Boyd said.

However, that hurdle is often a high one for the defense, Boyd said.

The insanity defense essentially argues that the person “couldn’t help it,” said Shealy, the Charleston law professor and former prosecutor. “Because generally, there is no defense to killing a child unless there is a question of sanity.”

As far as prosecutors deciding to seek the death penalty, the defendant’s mental state is usually considered, both Shealy and Boyd said. But even if the mental state is an issue, prosecutors can seek the death penalty.

But if anywhere along the line a judge rules that Gregory was either insane at the time of the crimes or is incompetent to stand trial, that would not mean he walks out of jail a free man. Any mental incompetency ruling would trigger a civil commitment by a judge to a state mental institution, the experts said.

Gregory’s lawyer, 16th Circuit Chief Public Defender Harry Dest, reiterated Friday he still has concerns about the mental state of Gregory both at the time of the incident and now. But Dest declined further comment.

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