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.
Judge rules Gaeta can be forcibly medicated — (The Kitsap Sun)
Andrew Binion, Kitsap Sun
Published 5:25 p.m. PT May 23, 2017
PORT ORCHARD — A Kitsap County Superior Court judge gave doctors at Western State Hospital the go-ahead Tuesday to forcibly medicate an East Bremerton man who had been found mentally incompetent to stand trial for the rape and murder of 6-year-old Jenise Wright.
Gabriel Gaeta, 20, charged as an adult at age 17 for the 2014 death of Jenise, had been found legally unable to stand trial in February. Reports say he had fashioned a noose while in the Kitsap County Jail and was non-responsive with his attorneys.
A psychiatrist from Western State testified that Gaeta arrived at the hospital from the Kitsap County Jail last week. He did not respond to doctors or voluntarily take medications. After he lashed out Monday at hospital staff who tried to rouse him from his bed, the doctor asked for an expedited hearing for the authority to use intravenous antipsychotics. Unlike pills, injectable medications can be administered without a person’s consent.
Although defendants with mental illnesses can stand trial, they must be able to understand the charges against them and be able to participate in their own defense.
Dr. Margaret Dean, a psychiatrist at the hospital’s Center for Forensic Services, said Gaeta had been lying on his bed, facing a wall with a pillow covering his head when staff checked on him. She said Gaeta lashed out when he was touched. Gaeta allegedly bit two staff members before being injected with sedatives and restrained.
“He was very, very withdrawn, basically non-communicative,” Dean told Judge Jennifer Forbes. “He just wanted to be left alone.”
Dean said she had not evaluated Gaeta, but she said he could be afflicted by a major depressive disorder with psychotic features or a psychotic disorder.
Gaeta, a student at Olympic High School when he was arrested, is accused of raping and strangling Jenise in early August 2014 and then hiding her body in the mud behind the East Bremerton mobile home park where the two lived with their families. Investigators were led to Gaeta after his DNA was allegedly on clothing of Jenise’s found near her body.
Prosecutors had requested a competency evaluation just after he was charged with first-degree murder, saying he exhibited signs of mental illness and had been taking an antidepressant at the time of his arrest, but his attorneys refused at that time.
Gaeta’s mother told the Kitsap Sun that she had seen signs of severe depression before he was alleged to have killed Jenise, and that she had sought help for her son.
Gaeta’s attorney, Jeniece LaCross, said Gaeta had not necessarily refused to take his medications, but he wanted to have their effects and side effects explained to him.
Forbes included in the order that at his request staff would provide Gaeta with printed materials about the medications, which Gaeta’s mother, Tina Wright, said would help him cooperate.
Dean told Forbes that during his short stay at the hospital a staff member may have given Gaeta his medications and told him to “just take them.”
“That could have very well taken place, and that is regrettable,” Dean said.
Tina Wright — no relation to Jenise — said Gaeta’s lashing out after being rousted may have been a defensive response.
“Whether real or not, he feels threatened,” Wright said.
Forbes ordered Gaeta be taken to Western State in February, but he was not taken to the hospital until last week. A Western State spokeswoman previously told the Kitsap Sun there is an average two-month wait for admission to the hospital.
The purpose of the “competency restoration” is not necessarily to treat Gaeta’s mental illness but to bring him to a legal standard called “competency,” a distinction where he understands the accusations against him and can participate in his own defense.
“If the defendant is not competent then the case cannot proceed,” Chief Deputy Chad Enright told Forbes. “Obviously, he is suffering from a mental disorder and to a large extent letting him sit in a cell with a pillow over his head is cruel.”
Dean said Gaeta is “treatment naïve,” meaning he has had little exposure to psychotropic medications, and told Forbes that each day Gaeta would be given the chance to take antipsychotic medications voluntarily, and if he refused, injectable medications with similar properties would be given to him forcibly.
Each day the routine would be repeated, with Gaeta given the opportunity to take the medications.
“We do everything possible to make the process as least intrusive as possible,” Dean said.
Responding to questions from LaCross about whether jails would discontinue psychotropic medications, Dean said when Western State is successful in restoring the competency of an inmate, it returns inmates to their local jails with a two-week supply of medications.
“I don’t think they would receive two week’s worth of pills and not give them to him,” Dean said, calling the Kitsap Jail medical staff “pretty sharp and on it.”
The jail’s medical staff works for a for-profit contractor, now known as Correct Care Solutions, which took another defendant off his meds during his murder trial in 2014, resulting in a mistrial. Michael Pierce, who was eventually convicted, had arrived in the jail with a supply of meds to treat his schizophrenia through trial.