Thursday, December 18, 2008

Defense in California case argues that murder suspect has MR diagnosis, should be spared death penalty

From City News Service in Los Angeles:

MURRIETA, Calif. -- A man facing the death penalty for bludgeoning a man to death did not know how to write an address on a letter to his daughter, a jail nurse testified Wednesday, supporting a defense claim that the defendant is legally retarded and should be spared from execution.

Tony Ricky Yonko, 46, was convicted of killing 42-year-old Paul Ngo with a hammer during a burglary on Oct. 22, 2002. Two of Ngo's three sons found their father dead.

A seven-woman, five-man jury found Yonko guilty of murder and recommended the death penalty.

A six-man, six-woman jury must now determine if Yonko is legally retarded. If he is found to be retarded under state law, Yonko would be spared the death penalty.

Registered nurse Sandra Nelson, who works part-time in the Riverside County jail, testified Wednesday that she knew Yonko from his visits to the mental health unit in the jail.

She said she helped Yonko write letters to his family, though she learned later that such help violated jail policy.

Under questioning by Yonko's defense attorney, Nelson said Yonko "couldn't write."

"He wanted to be able to read letters and he wanted to respond to them," she said. "I would print the letters to his children."

Nelson said Yonko would state what he wanted written in "very fragmented sentences."

"It didn't make sense to me some of the time," she said. "Sometimes he would choose words that didn't make a whole lot of sense."

The defense contends that Yonko has a lower-than-average IQ, putting him in the mildly retarded state.

A psychologist has also testified to that effect.

But a prosecutor contends that Yonko has manipulated experts into thinking he is deficient. Defense attorney Elaine Johnson Wednesday called to the stand Dr. Ansar Haroun, a psychiatrist who evaluated Yonko and determined that he thought the defendant was "malingering," or acting deficient for the benefit of his court case.

Under direct questioning by Johnson, Haroun said he never gave any malingering tests to anyone at the Southwest Detention Center, where Yonko is being held. He said he also does not give IQ tests, but leaves that up to psychologists.

One such psychologist, Ari Kalechstein, testified last week that he did give Yonko an IQ test and determined he was mildly retarded.

Haroun testified that determining mental retardation is difficult in an institutional setting.

"Doctors make opinions on whatever information is given to them," Haroun said, adding that a good number of inmates are mentally retarded.

Yonko killed Ngo while stealing his safe. The safe, and the hammer used to kill Ngo, was found in his Volvo, which was parked in Yonko's garage.

Johnson told the jury that Yonko shows a level of incompetence that indicates mild retardation. Defense attorneys have insisted that Yonko was raised to lie, cheat and steal but received no education and has a very limited vocabulary.

His mother is a schizophrenic, and Yonko is functionally illiterate, Johnson said. She said his inability to gauge the consequences of his actions are part of his problem.

Some of his previous burglaries failed because of his lack of a reasoned plan, Johnson said, showing incompetence.

Because he never went to school, there are no records that can be used to gauge his performance during the early years of his development, Kalechstein testified.

Jurors are not being told that Yonko's life hinges on their decision, though they will be told he will not be released regardless of their verdict.