Death penalty an option

BERNALILLO - Zacharia Craig offered no reaction to a judge's refusal to remove the death penalty from consideration if a jury finds him guilty of killing a State Police officer four years ago.

That flat effect is a symptom of the mental illness a psychologist says Craig, 23, is afflicted with and likely suffered to an even greater degree Aug. 1, 2001, when authorities say he mowed down State Police Officer Lloyd Aragon.

Craig's attorney, Jeff Buckels, had argued that his client's illness should preclude him from facing the death penalty, because it should be treated no differently than mental retardation.

State District Judge Louis P. McDonald denied the motion.

Federal and state constitutional amendments prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded, but the rules do not apply to the mentally ill.

After the judge's ruling, Buckels told the court he planned to file a motion asking the courts to find that Craig is mentally retarded as legally defined.

That appears to be in opposition to Buckels' own expert witness, Dr. Eric Westfried, who Monday testified that while Craig might be in no better shape than a mildly mentally retarded person, he was not mentally retarded in the classical sense, because he scored well in other cognitive areas.

Craig is expected to be tried Jan. 23 on a first-degree murder charge at the Sandoval County Judicial Complex in Bernalillo.

His case has languished for four years because three times a judge has ruled that he is incompetent to stand trial.

In June 2004, McDonald ruled Craig had been treated to competency, and District Attorney Lemuel Martinez renewed his vow to seek the death penalty in the case.

Craig has remained hospitalized at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., since he was first ruled incompetent in May 2002.

Psychologists have testified that Craig suffered from severe Grave's disease, a thyroid condition with symptoms that include psychosis, poor judgment, agitation and distractibility. The disease has since been treated with medication.

On Monday, Westfried, a psychologist, told the court that Craig also has a moderate to severe disorder of the brain's right hemisphere. Symptoms include a problem with visual and spacing functions, an almost autistic inability to recognize negative emotions in others or appreciate consequences, poor social skills and inability to form intimate relations.

Craig, he said, also has an IQ of 72, considered borderline to mild mental retardation.

Craig was 19 when authorities say he shoplifted cold medication from a Grants Wal-Mart and led officers on a wild, 45-mile chase east on I-40 in a stolen pickup.

Officers at the scene have testified that Craig aimed the truck straight for Aragon, 37, who was standing in the median after placing stop sticks across the road.

Aragon, of Grants, died instantly.

Mental illness vs. mental retardation is an especially timely issue in light of last month's shooting deaths of five people, including two Albuquerque police officers, all on Aug. 18. Attorneys for the accused, John Hyde, say he has a long history of schizophrenia and is not competent to stand trial.

Hyde, 48, is undergoing a 90-day competency evaluation at the Las Vegas psychiatric facility.