UPDATE, 11:20 p.m.:
An Ector County jury found 19-year-old Gabe McDonald competent to stand trial in the shooting deaths of his parents, a unanimous decision that meant the capital murder case against him would proceed in court on Tuesday.
During the separate competency case lasting more than 12 hours Monday, attorneys could not mention the details of the accusations McDonald faces. Instead, jurors had to decide if McDonald was able to understand his case and the potential consequences and whether he is able to assist his defense attorneys.
That was hotly debated. But prosecutors suggested McDonald was feigning incompetence or avoiding the “horrible reality” he faces, pointing to testimony of court-appointed psychologist who said McDonald understood details of his case.
“He doesn’t want to face the reality of where he’s going to go, but he understands,” Assistant Attorney General Jane Starnes said.
McDonald and his adopted sister, 23-year-old Grace McDonald, are both facing a capital murder charge in the deaths of their adoptive parents Gregg and Jana McDonald on March 2, 2016, in their Conley Avenue home. Gabe McDonald is accused of pulling the trigger.
Grace McDonald, who also awaits trial, faced additional charges of criminal conspiracy and prohibited sexual conduct. She is accused of having sex with her adoptive brother.
Defense attorney Justin Low argued finding Gabe McDonald incompetent would give him time to get the help he needs at a state hospital so he can understand the case against him.
“Why not educate him?” Low said in his closing arguments. “If you find him incompetent, he’s not going home. It’s not an insanity verdict. He’s not out of this.”
Gabe McDonald has pleaded not guilty and Low said he will not pursue an insanity defense.
A Lubbock-based psychologist hired by the defense, Dr. Philip Davis, said McDonald suffers from several learning disabilities and a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum commonly known as Asperger syndrome. He had no previous autism diagnosis, including in school.
But Davis said Gabe McDonald struggled with developmental delays since infancy attributed to the disorder.
Low and his co-counsel, former Deputy District Attorney Chris Fostel, also pointed to records showing McDonald repeatedly failed standardized tests and scored barely in the average range on intelligence tests. Testimony of an ECISD educational diagnostician, Susan Duckworth, supported those assertions.
Letters Gabe McDonald wrote in jail showed he was “emotionally and intellectually estranged” from the situation he faces, Davis said.
“He has no understanding of the potential consequences should he be convicted,” Davis said.
In one letter, Davis said Gabe McDonald wrote, with numerous misspellings, that “I would sign for time served and one year of parole. While I would be on parole I would have to survive on my cousin’s ranch.”
Should Gabe McDonald be found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors described Gabe McDonald’s letter about living on the ranch as a “counter offer” to a plea deal. Starnes called it a “middle finger” to prosecutors “who made him an offer that he didn’t like.”
“He just thinks he’s above going to prison,” Starnes said.
Assistant Attorneys General Starnes and Geoff Barr are prosecuting the case following District Attorney Bobby Bland’s decision to recuse his office.
In another one of the others letters, Davis said Gabe McDonald wrote to an elementary-school crush, proposing marriage and detailing the home they would live in. The psychologist described it as one example of “fantasy bordering on delusion” evident in Gabe McDonald’s writing.
The court appointed psychologist, Dr. Perry Marchioni of Midland, testified that Gabe McDonald has learning disorders, below-average intelligence and possible brain damage but disputed the autism diagnosis. He said Gabe McDonald was able to recall details about his case and discuss the charges against him and “presented himself as thoughtful and organized in a goal-directed logical fashion.” Marchioni said he also believed Gabe McDonald’s letter about probation to be a joke.
“Ultimately I decided that he should be considered competent,” Marchioni said.
The capital murder trial is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the 224th District Court of Judge James Rush.
UPDATE: 9:44 p.m. An Ector County jury deemed 19-year-old Gabe McDonald competent to stand trial. The jury’s unanimous decision Monday paved the way for a trial in the capital murder case against McDonald to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
A 12-person jury is scheduled to determine if 19-year-old Gabe McDonald is competent to stand trial in the shooting deaths of his adoptive parents, following a push by his defense attorneys to move the trial outside of Ector County.
The trial that began Monday asks the jury only to decide whether McDonald is competent, not whether he is innocent or guilty in the capital murder case against him. Competency deals with whether McDonald understands his case and the charges he faces and whether he is able to assist his defense attorneys.
If the jury deems McDonald competent, another trial to determine his guilt is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Defense attorney Justin Low said a Saturday article in the Odessa American spurred his request to move the trial away from Ector County. That article reported on a court filing that included findings of a psychological evaluation and revealed new details in the accounts of events leading to the deaths of parents, Gregg and Jana McDonald.
Low said the document was supposed to be sealed but was instead made public by courthouse personnel. The result of that error, Low said, was reporting that “discloses legally privileged information” in the case subject to an “enormous amount of media attention.”
Initially Assistant Attorneys General Geoff Barr and Jane Starnes, who are prosecuting the case, agreed to the venue change. Barr described the information released as sensitive.
“This is a capital murder case and we just want to be extra careful in all aspects of it,” Barr said.
But 224th District Court Judge James Rush declined to move the trial. And after the jury was seated, prosecutors withdrew their support for Low’s motion. Prosecutors contend McDonald is competent.
The Saturday article reported for the first time new details in an account of the slayings on March 2, 2016, at the McDonald’s Conley Avenue home. The document stated that on the night of the shooting deaths of his parents, Gabe McDonald went into his parent’s bedroom and watched them for about 30 minutes before going into his sister’s room to ask her to come into their parent’s room with him.
His adoptive sister, Grace McDonald, reportedly declined and told him to go back to sleep.
The document stated that Gabe McDonald went back into their room and shot his father, waking his mother, who he then shot. Grace McDonald, 23, also awaits trial on a capital murder charge in connection to the shooting.
The Saturday story also details that the psychological evaluation was conducted on Gabe McDonald by Dr. Perry Marchioni and submitted to the court June 5 stating McDonald should not be considered to have an intellectual disability and should not be considered mentally ill.
“The results of the psychological evaluation, review of records, mental status exam, and competency interview suggest that Gabe McDonald should be considered competent to stand trial,” the document stated, adding that he has the capacity to testify as well.
Grace McDonald also faces charges of criminal conspiracy and prohibited sexual conduct, and is accused of having sex with her adoptive brother. Her trial had been scheduled for June 25, but attorneys in the case have sought a
delay, citing concern that the siblings’ trial dates are too close together.
Prosecutors with Texas Attorney General’s Office are handling the cases because District Attorney Bobby Bland recused his office.
Former Deputy District Attorney Chris Fostel is serving as Low’s co-counsel.