A judge temporarily suspended criminal proceedings yesterday against the man accused of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard when she was a child and holding her prisoner for 18 years, citing worries about the defendant's mental state.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Phimister made the decision after a short pretrial hearing for Phillip Garrido.
Phimister said he had concerns about Garrido's mental competency to participate in his defence on 29 counts of kidnapping, rape and false imprisonment in the 1991 disappearance of Dugard. A preliminary hearing where prosecutors would have laid out their evidence against Garrido had been scheduled to start on October 7.
The judge did not halt proceedings against Garrido's wife, Nancy, who faces similar counts. The couple are accused of holding the girl captive in a backyard jumble of tents and sheds for nearly two decades until they were arrested in August 2009.
Authorities said Dugard, who is now 30, bore two daughters to Garrido while being held.
The judge said he based his decision on talks with Garrido's attorney and observing the defendant in court over the past few months. A report from a psychiatrist Phimister appointed to assist the defence are pending.
Phimister said he was concerned about Garrido's unresponsive behaviour during earlier hearings.
He said he'd noticed Garrido looking away and appearing not to be listening when his lawyer was talking to him, and frantically scribbling notes when nothing important was happening.
"The court is troubled by these observations," he said.
The judge's action came in response to a private meeting Thursday with Garrido's lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Susan Gellman, who has previously stated she thinks her client is mentally ill. She told Phimister that she agreed with his assessment based on her more than 20 visits with Garrido in jail.
"In these meetings, we have had persistent trouble," Gellman said.
District attorney Vern Pierson said prosecutors think Garrido "is in fact competent," but would defer to Gellman and the judge's opinion for now.
Outside court, Gellman described the suspension as a delay that would likely last only a few months and not a strategy to keep her client from being prosecuted.
"This is a fundamental fairness issue," she said. "What we are talking about here is whether a defendant is able to make a decision about his case."
Nancy Garrido is due back in court on October 1 for a final pretrial conference before her October 7 preliminary hearing.
At that hearing, prosecutors would present evidence that the judge would use to decide whether there is enough to put her on trial.
Phimister set another hearing for Phillip Garrido on October 8, where he said he would consider appointing an independent expert to evaluate Garrido. Although he suspended the case against Garrido yesterday, the judge still must hold a full competency hearing.
Similar issues delayed proceedings against the couple accused of kidnapping Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart in 2002 and holding her captive for nine months. The case was postponed for more than six years while Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee underwent psychiatric treatment.
Last November, Barzee pleaded guilty to kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor. Mitchell was declared competent in March and his trial has been scheduled for later this year.