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A capital murder case is winding its way through the legal system here, with a trial tentatively set for December of this year.
The defendant, 39-year-old Steven J. Frederick, is charged with capital first-degree murder in the death of a fellow inmate at the Jefferson Correctional Institution (JCI). This explains why the trial is being held here.
According to the grand jury indictment, Frederick allegedly strangled inmate William Dillow on or about Nov. 3, 2015. The charging document includes a second count of sexual battery, which the state is not prosecuting.
The trial was scheduled to begin on July 22. But on Monday, June 10, Attorney Armando Garcia, who is representing Frederick, informed the court that the defense would not be ready by the scheduled trial date.
“We're not ready for trial and we won't be ready come July 22,” Garcia said. “We simply need more time.”
He characterized the case as a difficult one, in that it involved the death penalty plus the issues of intellectual disability and adaptive functioning deficit, disorders that experts say significantly limit a person's reasoning, learning and problem-solving abilities, as well as communication and social skills.
Garcia argued that the two disorders posed a bar to the death penalty, a potential that the defense wanted to explore.
The problem that the defense faced, he said, was that what few records existed from Frederick's childhood were paltry and they were located in Belle Glade, an impoverished community in Palm Beach County in South Florida.
“This is a rural, migrant area,” Garcia said of Belle Glade. “The resources are limited.”
Not only were the available records few and difficult to access, but the defendant's relatives and others that knew him in his early years had either died or scattered, he said. His point, Garcia said, was that the defense was having difficulty investigating the defendant's background, let alone coming up with witnesses or evidence to prove his disorders.
“We have to get a psychologist to do a test,” Garcia said. “We already have a psychologist who's an expert on psychometrics (science that measures mental capacities and processes.) We're also looking for witnesses who can give testimony on the adaptive functioning deficit, but this all takes time.”
Assistant State Attorney Andrew Deneen initially questioned the need for the continuance. He noted that the defendant had a prior conviction for homicide in Palm Beach County and that the current case had been set for trial about a year ago.
“The defense is asking for a four-month continuance,”Deneen said. “It puts the state at a disadvantage.”
Even so, he noted, given the additional witnesses that the defense was indicating that it planned to introduce, the state would need time to depose them.
“Under the circumstances, I can't argue against the motion,” Deneen concluded.
Judge Dawn Caloca-Johnson acknowledged that the intellectual disability disorder was the most significant issue raised by the defense, and one that warranted further exploration. She asked when the defense thought it might be ready for trial if not in July?
“This is something we've pondered,” Garcia said. “We think we could be ready for November. But then, we thought we could be ready by July and things didn't develop as we thought they would.”
Both the state and defense agreed that it would require about two weeks for the trial, including the penalty phase.
After checking the court calendar, and in light of the various holidays in November and other activities already scheduled in the courtroom during the month, the judge opted for a trial in December. She set the week of Dec. 9- 13 for the jury selection and trial, and the week beginning on Monday, Dec. 16, for the penalty phase.