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Trial Set for Felon Facing 3rd Strike

Courts: Jury will determine competency of Santa Paula man accused of shoplifting.

April 11, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury will determine the mental competency of a career criminal from Santa Paula who faces life in prison for allegedly stealing $12 worth of wine, breath spray and lip balm, a judge ruled this week.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa has scheduled a May 21 trial for convicted rapist and robber Ronald Steven Herrera.

The trial will determine if he "is competent to cooperate with his attorney," Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Darryl Perlin said Tuesday.

Herrera, 56, has spent 22 years in prison for raping a woman and her teenage daughter in Ventura and for a series of robberies in Virginia. He is now charged with burglary and petty theft for allegedly shoplifting at a Von's store in Carpinteria in January.

If convicted, Herrera faces 25 years to life in prison under the state's three-strikes law. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody in lieu of $250,000 bail.

At issue is whether Herrera can effectively assist his attorney, said Deputy Public Defender Jeff Chambliss, Herrera's lawyer.

"The law says if you are unable to understand the nature of the charges against you due to a mental illness or are incapable of cooperating with defense counsel, you go to Patton [mental hospital] until you are ready," he said.

During a hearing last month, Ochoa questioned the defendant's competency after Herrera, in a series of apparently rambling and disjointed statements, asked whether he could represent himself at the criminal trial.

Herrera told the judge that Chambliss was capable of doing the job but that he would rather present his own case, Perlin said. While answering more questions from Ochoa, Herrera asked that a female attorney represent him.

"In the course of making this motion, he said a number of things that made the judge feel that Herrera might not be capable of representing himself," Perlin said.

Ochoa ordered two mental health experts to examine Herrera and report back at Tuesday's hearing. Because the evaluations were not entirely conclusive, Chambliss made the request for a more thorough competency trial.

If Herrera is found competent, a jury trial on the criminal charges would be next, Perlin said. If not, he will be hospitalized at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County for an undetermined amount of time.

Before his prison release in 1996, Herrera was one of the first inmates in California ordered to a state mental health hospital under the terms of the Sexually Violent Predator Act, which allows prosecutors to place repeat sexual offenders in such facilities for two-year increments after they had completed their prison terms.

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