PORT ORCHARD — Despite not being evaluated by a mental health expert, lawyers representing accused killer Gabriel Gaeta say he is competent to stand trial and if forced to undergo an evaluation they will advise him to plead the Fifth.
Appearing in Kitsap Superior Court on Friday afternoon, Gaeta, 17, entered a plea of not guilty to charges that he raped and murdered 6-year-old Jenise Wright in August. Prosecutors had requested the evaluation of Gaeta during his first court appearance, following his arrest. Prosecutor Russ Hauge said the request was made after learning that Gaeta had been taking an antidepressant medication and due to his behavior during questioning with investigators.
When asked if he understood the charges against him, Gaeta answered “yes” in a quiet voice.
A person is competent to stand trial if he understands the charges and is able to participate in his own defense.
“Mr. Gaeta meets that criteria at this time and we stipulate to his competency,” wrote Gaeta’s attorney, Roger Hunko.
“If forced to go through a competency evaluation I as lead counsel would advise him not to answer any questions at this time and to rely on his Fifth Amendment rights,” Hunko said.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects defendants from self-incrimination.
A deputy prosecutor on the case said appellate court decisions gave weight to the opinions of defense attorneys.
“At this point he is competent, and we are glad to put that issue to rest,” said Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright.
Judge Jennifer Forbes set trial for Dec. 22, but it is likely that date will be pushed back. Attorneys on the case have noted the large number of documents that were generated during the investigation of Jenise Wright’s disappearance and death.
Jenise and Gaeta lived nearby in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park in East Bremerton, and Gaeta was considered a friend of the family.
Jenise was reported missing by her parents Aug. 3. Her body was found in a muddy ravine near the mobile home park on Aug. 7 and Gaeta was arrested Aug. 9. Investigators have alleged they matched DNA material found on Jenise’s clothing to Gaeta and during an interview with investigators Gaeta said he alone was involved in her disappearance and death.
Gaeta has been lodged in an isolated cell at Kitsap juvenile detention. He turns 18 in Deceember, at which time he will be transferred to the Kitsap County Jail.
Gaeta was charged with first-degree murder, which includes multiple aggravating circumstances, as well as first-degree rape of child. If convicted, Gaeta could face life in prison.