CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - An expert witness enlisted to help prove a Wildwood murder suspect is insane appeared to change her view during testimony Tuesday, and now the defense is arguing for a lesser manslaughter change.
Superior Court Judge Patricia Wild is expected to give her verdict in the non-jury trial Monday.
Psychiatrist Carla Rodgers was hired by defense attorney Stephen Patrick to help prove an insanity defense for Alberto Martinez, 31, a homeless Wildwood man charged with killing 19-year-old college student Vincent DeSario at the corner of Oak and Atlantic avenues on May 10, 2010.
Witnesses have said Martinez, angered because he thought DeSario was laughing at him, crushed his skull with a wooden baseball bat that he routinely carried with him when he was riding his bicycle around the city.
DeSario, of Edison in Middlesex County, who was in Wildwood for a collegiate golf tournament and aspired to play professional golf, never regained consciousness and died May 24. The autopsy showed major skull and brain damage.
Rodgers began her testimony Tuesday by explaining the "mental status exam" she did on Martinez during an hour-long session at the Cape May County jail. She reviewed his medical records before the meeting. She said he appeared disorganized and unable to focus and told her some disturbing things, such as that he sometimes heard voices.
"He felt Jews and Russians were out to kill him and somebody had taken part of his brain. He said he had an imaginary child," Rodgers said.
But on cross-examination, Rodgers was presented with evidence from First Assistant Prosecutor Rob Johnson, including police statements and witness reports. She had been arguing during much of the morning that Martinez was insane and did not know what he was doing when he killed DeSario.
"It now appears he did know what he was doing," Rodgers said.
Patrick asked more questions trying to support the insanity defense, asking Rodgers if Martinez knew right from wrong. Rodgers said it appeared he did know right from wrong, though she said she would have to do a second psychiatric exam to be sure.
After a recess for lunch, Patrick declined to submit Rodgers' report into evidence.
"I'm not admitting anything. It doesn't seem very useful," Patrick said.
Asked about his decision after court recessed, Patrick said: "She said he's not insane and she's my expert."
Johnson called Rodgers report "frankly worthless" because he said she wasn't given any facts in the case.
After Rodgers's testimony, Patrick changed course by arguing the killing was not murder but deserved a lesser manslaughter charge. Martinez is charged with first-degree murder and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. Patrick argued to prove murder it must be shown the defendant made a conscious decision to cause serious bodily injury or death. He said Martinez was just trying to teach DeSario a "lesson in humility" and not kill him.
Witnesses have testified the laugher was not even directed at Martinez but was over a friend of DeSario's tripping on the sidewalk as they walked toward the Wildwood Boardwalk.
Johnson said DeSario was struck so hard in the head that people in the area thought it was a gunshot. The force, he argued, showed intent to do serious bodily harm or death. He stressed what happened afterward. Johnson said Martinez took off his Yankees baseball hat and covered his head with a hooded sweatshirt. Johnson said he rode away on the bicycle, got rid of the baseball bat, which was never found, and then lied to police officers about his whereabouts when he was arrested.
"All his actions within five minutes of the homicide show he had his wits about him. Dr. Rodgers was presented with the facts today and she changed her mind. She believed the defendant knew what he was doing. The case goes well beyond manslaughter. There is no self defense. There is no insanity defense. This is murder," Johnson said.
Rodgers earlier had argued Martinez suffered from schizophrenia and had been treated at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital and the Ann Klein Forensic Center, a psychiatric hospital in West Trenton. She initially argued he was not aware of what he was doing that night "to a reasonable degree of probability."
Johnson asked if Martinez had schizophrenia at the time of previous criminal convictions in New Jersey and Florida. He noted those courts gave no special dispensation. There wasn't even a mental-health evaluation for a grand theft auto and resisting arrest case in Florida. He said Martinez was ruled competent enough by a judge to be read his Miranda rights in this case.
"Just because you suffered from schizophrenia it doesn't rise to 'you get out of jail free and do whatever you want,'" Johnson said.
There was some debate on whether Martinez was hearing voices when he heard laughter that night or whether he was hearing real laughter. Johnson questioned whether Martinez was malingering, a medical term for feigning sickness.
"You met him one time. Could you tell in one hour whether he as a malingerer?" he asked.
Rodgers said there are tests for that but they only work if the patient is cooperative.
Martinez, led into court in handcuffs and leg shackles, was given a chance to testify but declined. Both attorneys made their closing arguments. This is not a jury trial. Judge Wild said she would take some time to review the case and make a ruling Monday at 9 a.m. Martinez faces a life sentence if found guilty.
A large contingent of family and friends of DeSario attended the court session. The family declined to talk to the media.
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