Romero found competent to stand trial

By Reggie Ellis

A judge ruled last week that the Exeter man accused of the 2001 rape and murder of an elderly woman is competent to stand trial. David John Romero, 37, of Exeter is accused of the rape and murder of Jewel Sutton, 92, in August 2001.

As of press time, Assistant District Attorney Carol Turner said Romero "would likely enter a plea" at another hearing which was held yesterday, Dec. 16, but that "there were no guarantees."

Turner said, during the course of the hearing, a plea bargain was discussed where Romero would plea guilty to all charges and avoid the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The sentencing would likely be sometime in late January.

Evidence of Romero's mental disability was presented by the defense and will probably be factored into sentencing in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 20, 2002 ruling that executing developmentally disabled individuals is cruel and unusual punishment. If there is no plea, a jury trial date to determine his guilt or innocence in the 2001 murder will be set for sometime next year.

A decision on Romero's competency has been up in the air since his preliminary hearing in 2001 when he wandered around the courtroom and didn't seem to understand what was going on. Defense attorney Arthur Hampar argued that his client was not competent to stand trial. During the next two years three psychologists have argued back and forth about Romero's possible mental retardation.

A psychologist with the Central Valley Regional Center diagnosed Romero as incompetent to stand trial at a court hearing on Sept. 30, 2002. The Central Valley Regional Center is required by law to evaluate defendants when there is a question of competency or developmental disability.

The district attorney's office questioned the validity of that evaluation and asked the court to let Romero be examined by a psychologist of its choice. The judge granted that request at a competency hearing on Oct. 28, 2002. On Jan. 6 the judge heard testimony from the prosecution's psychologist and a series of hearings followed.

Turner said Romero's evaluation stated that he did comprehend the circumstances but was not competent to work in his defense.

Romero is accused of raping and killing Sutton in her home on Aug. 11, 2001. Romero, who was Sutton's gardner, was arrested by sheriff's deputies on Aug. 21, 2001 at his mother's home. The sheriff's department reported that an angry confrontation eight years earlier made Romero a suspect in the case.

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