The Rock Hill man accused of shooting and killing his disabled wife and their granddaughter told a judge Thursday he “thinks” he understands the perils of representing himself in a double-murder case that could result in the death penalty.
Ronald Fred Gregory, 67, is charged with two counts of murder in the March 21 deaths of Barbara Gregory, 71, and 9-year-old Mia Rodgers. The Gregorys were in the midst of a custody battle with Mia’s father and his parents at the time.
Thursday’s hearing also produced the first indication that a plea deal that would keep Gregory out of the electric chair might be reached. Prosecutors have not indicated whether they will seek the death penalty.
The accusations against Gregory have reached a state where “possible outcomes in the case” could be discussed with him, prosecutors said in court. Police and court records show Gregory confessed to both killings. No other suspects have been identified.
Prosecutors have the authority to seek the death penalty for the double-murder that includes a child under age 10, or offer a negotiated plea. A non-death-penalty murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Gregory has so far refused to hire a lawyer after he was stripped of a public defender last month when a judge learned that he had more than $750,000 in cash and property assets.
Gregory’s mental state is also at issue. Before his public defender was taken off the case, Gregory was examined by a private psychiatrist. A full evaluation would require at least one more interview with the psychiatrist, said Bruce Poore, Gregory’s lawyer in the custody battle over Mia.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III explained to Gregory that facing two murder charges – which carry up to life in prison upon conviction – without a lawyer would be “very dangerous.”
Gregory still was unsure on the status of the case.
“Where do we stand now?” Gregory asked Hayes. “Have I been charged, or am I being charged?”
Those questions came despite Gregory’s having been in jail without bail since March 28. His arrest followed a week in the hospital after police said he tried to kill himself with two gunshots to the chest.
Prosecutors plan to present the case to a grand jury May 29. If the grand jury returns indictments against Gregory, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said he is “prepared to move forward as expeditiously as possibly” toward a trial.
Thursday’s hearing is required by law for any defendant who decides to exercise the right to go to trial without a lawyer. It is designed to warn defendants of “the dangers” of self-representation.
Judge Hayes explained to Gregory that a case as small as misdemeanor shoplifting is best handled by a defense lawyer, as lawyers can catch things that untrained defendants might miss. But in this case, Gregory’s very life is at stake.
Hayes told Gregory that he has a right to “negotiate a resolution before trial.” Hayes asked Gregory if he understood that right and Gregory paused and said, “I think so.”
Gregory also has the right to a preliminary hearing in front of a magistrate judge, Hayes told him, if he wants one before the grand jury meets May 29. That hearing would be to determine if police had probable cause to arrest Gregory in the first place.
Gregory’s response to whether he understood that was, “I’ve got two weeks from today?”
Despite those uncertainties, Gregory is still pushing on without a lawyer. Poore, the lawyer who represented Gregory in the custody battle, told the judge that Gregory now is “not sure” about hiring a lawyer.