Judge finds Damron competent to stand trial for mother’s murder

Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018 9:53 AM
Jeremiah Paul Damron, center, during his arrest last year on suspicion of homicide.

Montezuma County District Court Judge Todd Plewe on Wednesday ruled that Jeremiah Paul Damron was competent to stand trial for the murder of his mother, whose body was found beaten and burned in his backyard outside Cortez a year ago.

Plewe’s decision ended a competency hearing with three expert witnesses, two who had evaluated Damron this year and found him competent to proceed to trial, and one who had found him incompetent in 2017.

All three stated it was possible that without ongoing treatment, Damron’s bipolar disorder could deteriorate to the point that he was no longer competent to proceed. None would speculate about his competency since their evaluations.

“My job as a judge is not to decide what might happen in the future, even if I think it is likely, even if I believe it might happen,” Plewe said. “My job is to decide what is happening right now.”

Plewe, quoting Colorado Revised Statute 16-85-105, reiterated that evaluations after Damron’s restorative treatment at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo found that Damron understood the proceedings against him and could assist his counsel in his defense.

After about three hours of testimony, Plewe found “by a preponderance of evidence” that Damron was competent to proceed, and he tentatively scheduled a preliminary hearing for early September.

Damron sat hunched over the defense’s table throughout the hearing, his arms and ankles shackled, but the binds on his hands loosened so that he could take notes. Less than a dozen people attended the hearing.

Arguments Wednesday often turned to Damron’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the 17 days of amnesia that Damron says he suffered at the time of his mother’s death. The expert witnesses emphasized the dynamic nature of his bipolar episodes, and said they could resurface during duress or a trial.

District Attorney Will Furse, of the 22nd Judicial District, argued that Damron met the Colorado standard for competency – understanding the legal proceedings and assisting in his defense – despite his bipolar disorder and amnesia.

While acknowledging that Damron’s competency could change if his mental condition deteriorated, Furse argued that previous rulings found that amnesia did not prevent defendants from assisting counsel.

Defense attorney John Moran argued that Damron’s amnesia rendered him incompetent to proceed because, in part, he could not recall the facts surrounding his mother’s death and contribute to his defense.

For Plewe, the case came down to the 2001 Colorado Supreme Court decision in People vs. Palmer, which found that amnesia by itself does not constitute incompetency unless it rendered a defendant unable to understand the proceedings or assist in his own defense. In this case, Plewe said, Damron met the state standard for competency even if he had experienced amnesia.

Earlier Wednesday, Furse and Moran questioned three psychologists who had evaluated Damron.

Maren Conway, a forensic psychologist at Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, testified via a video link that her evaluation in February found that Damron was competent to proceed, but she recommended psychological monitoring and medication as needed. After working with Damron during his restorative treatment in Pueblo, she testified that without ongoing care, Damron’s condition could deteriorate, and he could experience psychotic episodes.Durango psychologist John Ragsdale testified that his evaluation on June 6 found that Damron demonstrated a factual and rational understanding of his case, could assist in his defense, and was competent to proceed to trial.Susan Coykendall, a psychology professor at Mesa State University and a Western Slope psychologist for the Colorado Mental Health Institute, evaluated Damron in September 2017. Her report in October expressed concern about his “acquiescence” to counsel, which she described as apathy caused by a deep state of depression. She concluded that he could not assist counsel in his own defense.The mental health evaluations are sealed from the public.

A preliminary hearing in the case is expected to be held between Sept. 5-7. Hearings typically are required to be held within 35 days of a request, but Damron and Moran on Wednesday waived that requirement to accommodate the schedule.

Damron, now 37, was arrested on North Sligo Street by Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin and two Cortez police officers on July 20, 2017. Nowlin said officers had responded to a report of a homicide at Damron’s mobile home in the 7000 block of County Road 21.75, near County Road G.

The body of Kristie Damron, 62, was found in his backyard that morning.

Deputies had confronted Damron the night before the arrest in response to a report of domestic violence and assault. Nowlin said deputies were able to “de-escalate the situation” and remove Damron’s wife and son from the property.

Damron was charged with first-degree murder on July 28, 2017. The charge carries a minimum sentence of life in prison.


Key dates in the case against Jeremiah Paul Damron.

July 19, 2017: Montezuma County deputies respond just after 5 p.m. to a report of domestic violence at Damron’s mobile home in the 7000 block of County Road 21.75. They remove Damron’s wife and son and leave the area after he threatens to kill them. A deputy sees an elderly woman behind Damron in the house at one point.

July 20, 2017: The body of Damron’s mother, 62-year-old Kristie Damron, is found apparently beaten and burned to death in his backyard early in the morning. Cortez police and sheriff’s deputies arrest Damron on North Sligo Street at 10:25 a.m.

July 24, 2017: Damron appears in Montezuma County District Court for an advisement hearing. His bail is set at $500,000, and he is ordered to undergo a mental competency evaluation through the Colorado Department of Human Services.

July 28, 2017: Damron is charged with first-degree murder. His mental competency hearing is scheduled for Sept. 6, and his preliminary hearing for Sept. 22.

Sept. 6, 2017: Damron’s hearings are delayed after CDHS says the results of his evaluation will not be available until October.

Oct. 17, 2017: Damron is ruled mentally incompetent to participate in his own defense. Montezuma County District Judge Todd Plewe orders him to undergo treatment at the CDHS Institute in Pueblo.

Jan. 16, 2018: CDHS requests a delay in Damron’s treatment, and his hearing is postponed to April 3. Plewe turns down a request to reduce bail.

April 17, 2018: Plewe grants a request from the defense for a second mental health assessment. The next competency hearing is set for June 22.

June 22, 2018: Defense attorney John Moran announces plans to challenge the findings of two mental health evaluations declaring Damron competent to proceed. A competency hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1.

Aug. 1, 2018: Plewe, after hearing testimony from three expert witnesses, rules that Damron is competent to proceed to trial. A preliminary hearing was tentatively planned for Sept. 5-7.