Murder suspect ruled competent to stand trial

Cortez woman allegedly stabbed man seven times, heard ‘demons’

A Cortez woman who allegedly killed a man by stabbing him seven times has been ruled competent to stand trial.

Wearing a yellow Montezuma County inmate uniform, Valerie Espinoza, 38, displayed little emotion during a four-hour competency hearing on Monday, July 14. She did shiver periodically as she sat shackled before District Court Judge Todd Plewe, who ruled Espinoza would stand trial. She has been charged with second-degree murder.

Presented with two conflicting mental health evaluations, Plewe sided with the most recent, a May 20 report conducted by the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. Plewe described the latest evaluation as more credible, relevant and thorough than a previous assessment.

“Competency is a here-and-now determination,” said Plewe.

In his ruling, Plewe found that Espinoza didn’t have a mental disability that would prevent her from being able to rationally assist her legal counsel, public defenders Justin Bogan and Amy Smith. The defense was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their client was mentally unfit for trial.

“The defense failed to show incompetency,” said Plewe.

Set for Dec. 1, the jury trial is expected to last two to three weeks.

Psychologist B. Thomas Gray, clinical coordinator at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, testified via telephone on Monday that the defendant was competent, stating Espinoza had a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings. Gray’s evaluation was based on three separate interviews with the suspect in April.

“(Espinoza) said she had been hearing voices,” Gray testified on direct examination. “She identified the voices as demons.”

Adding the defendant’s auditory hallucinations were due to her prolonged methamphetamine use, which reportedly dates to 2003, Gray subsequently diagnosed Espinoza with a substance-induced psychotic disorder. Her psychotic symptoms dissipated “quickly” after being hospitalized and prescribed anti-psychotic mood-stabilizing medications, Gray said on cross-examination.

Gray said Espinoza understood the charges and allegations against her; the potential consequences; the roles of the judge, lawyers and jurors; along with the difference between pleading guilty and not guilty.

“She’s able to make decisions in her own interest to protect herself,” said Gray. “She’s competent to proceed.”

Psychologist John Ragsdale of Durango also conducted a mental health evaluation on Jan. 24, concluding the defendant suffered severe and chronic psychosis and was incompetent to stand trial. Ragsdale did not testify on Monday.

Psychiatrist Richard Pounds, of the Colorado Mental Health Institute, testified on cross-examination that patients previously ruled incompetent were routinely determined to be competent at a later date, especially after being institutionalized and sober.

“It happens all the time,” said Pounds.

Ordered by the court to undergo a mental health evaluation, Espinoza was admitted into the state’s mental health facility in February. At the time, intake officials noted involuntary body movements, outbursts of vulgarities and hallucinations.

The charges against Espinoza resulted from the stabbing death of Charles Chaves, 62, who suffered seven stab wounds to his upper body during an early morning attack on Sept. 19, 2013. A roommate reportedly discovered the victim lying on his bed “gasping for air,” and told police he recovered a bloody butcher knife from the defendant before she left the scene, according to court records.