BRADENTON — A day of legal wrangling over whether Otis C. Mack is competent to continue with his murder trial this week ended with the judge in the case blasting his public defender for comments he made about representing his client.
Mack, 21, is on trial this week on charges of first-degree murder and burglary in the death of 74-year-old Janice Fore, who was found suffocated in her northwest Bradenton home more than a year ago.
The first two days of trial went off without incident, but Wednesday the trial stalled as Mack reportedly had a mental breakdown in which doctors say he fell into a deep depression, suffered from an acute anxiety attack and said he heard voices of a deceased sister.
Circuit Judge Diana Moreland sent the jury home and ordered two doctors to examine Mack, who has been diagnosed as “mildly retarded,” according to court records. Both doctors found him competent to proceed, and Moreland agreed, ruling depression, anxiety and reported voices did not inhibit Mack’s understanding of the proceedings against him.
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But it was Dr. Wendy Jacobs’ assertion during testimony that Mack’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Steven Schaefer and attorney Stephen Walker, may need to go the extra mile to get Mack through trial set off a contentious encounter between Schaefer and Moreland.
Jacobs testified that Mack could make it through trial if there was a “lot of hand holding” by his attorneys, and Schaefer’s response to that drew Moreland’s wrath.
“I am not a hand holder; that is not what I’m paid to do,” Schaefer told the judge.
Moreland called Schaefer’s statement “outrageous,” saying his job is not only to “argue legalese” for his client, but to be a counselor.
“That’s outrageous. I find that so offensive,” Moreland said of Schaefer’s comments. “You are getting off the horse halfway through.”
Schaefer, a longtime public defender who has handled several murder cases over the years, had no response.
The trial will resume today.
Mack’s attorneys hinted several times during hearings Wednesday that their client may testify.
Mack is accused of breaking into Fore’s home with his co-defendant, Marcos Herrera, in May 2008, and binding and gagging Fore with duct tape during a burglary. Fore, who suffered from a lung disease, suffocated after the men wrapped duct tape around her head and over her mouth, prosecutors say.
In April, a jury found Herrera guilty of first-degree murder and burglary. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Herrera’s case has been appealed, but a higher court has not yet ruled on the conviction.