Judge Blocks Expert Testimony in Valdes Capital Murder Trial

In November of 2009, police officers made a grisly discovery: the bodies of 30-year-old Matthew Roddy and his mother, 53-year-old Pamela Knight Jeffries, wrapped in garbage bags and stuffed into a closet in their Weber County mobile home.  Then-33-year-old Jeremy Valdes was named as a murder suspect, with law enforcement suspecting additional aid from his girlfriend, 26-year-old Miranda Statler.  Statler later pleaded guilty, received and served a sentence, and has since been released from Utah State Prison on parole.

But while Statler’s story is more or less finished, for Valdes, the years-long legal battle is still in progress today.  Recently, a new development in the case has created an obstacle for the defense: in late July, 2nd District Judge Mark DeCaria granted the prosecution’s request to block two medical experts from testifying about an fMRI brain scan. Below, our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers discuss.

Matthew Roddy and Pamela Knight Jeffries Found Dead in Roy

As with any case, the facts are critical to the judge’s ruling.  When the bodies of Matthew Roddy and Pamela Knight Jefferies were found, it appeared that Roddy had been stabbed to death while his mother had been physically beaten.  The medical examiner’s report cited numerous wounds and lacerations to Roddy’s head, face, neck, and chest, while attributing Jeffries’ death to a combination of strangulation and blunt force trauma.

Police quickly turned their focus onto Jeremy Valdes, who sometimes shared Roddy and Jeffries’ home with his girlfriend, Miranda Statler.  Valdes allegedly committed the murders after getting into a heated argument with Roddy about prescription drugs Valium and OxyContin.

The couple was arrested on December 1, and Statler was charged with lying to police officers, stealing Roddy’s vehicle, and moving the dead bodies.  The following year, she pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and was released from Utah State Prison several years later at the age of 31.

Valdes, on the other hand, is still very much in the midst of his ordeal.

Medical Evidence Displays Abnormalities in Valdes’ Brain

At his initial hearing in 2010, Valdes rejected a plea deal, maintaining his innocence and stating, “I will expect an apology.”  He added, “I’m tired of the atrocities being spoken about me, and I’m not going to take it anymore.  I’ve got a photographic memory, and that’s something you don’t know about me.”

Valdes’ rejection of the plea deal then prompted prosecutors to seek the death penalty, which, while seldom used, still exists in Utah.  2nd District Judge Mark Decaria wrote, “Defendant fails to provide any cogent argument that the right to life and dignity is absolute,” adding, “Both state and federal constitutional provisions clearly allow that a person may be deprived of his or her life where principles of due process are satisfied.”

In 2013, Judge DeCaria granted a continuance to the defense to review medical evidence, rescheduling the trial to begin in June of 2014.  At the time of this writing, it is August of 2014, and the trial’s current date is set for January 20, 2015.

Valdes’ remaining defense attorney, Randall Marshall, has been heavily focused on the influence of Valdes’ mental state.  While Valdes did make a confession to police officers after the murders took place, the validity of that confession has been brought into question: previous MRI scans showed abnormalities in Valdes’ brain, potentially creating a diminished mental capacity.

In 2013, upon reviewing the MRI results medical experts for the defense determined that Valdes exhibited “frontal lobe executive dysfunction.”  This is highly relevant, because the brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for critical “executive functions” such as decision-making, judgment, and planning.

The defense subsequently filed a motion for a delay in order to probe the medical evidence in greater depth; but even then, the prosecution raised objections to a postponement.

“I really need some kind of closure,” Deputy Weber County Attorney Branden Miles read from a letter written by father Christopher Roddy.  “It’s like a slap in the face to keep this going on.”

Nonetheless, the continuance was granted, with Weber County attorney Dee Smith saying the victims’ relatives “want it done right, and they want it done once.”

2nd District Judge Mark DeCaria Blocks fMRI Testimony

This year, Valdes’ defense attorneys requested an fMRI, or “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging” scan.  fMRIs are similar to the better-known MRIs, and gauge mental activity by monitoring blood flow to various areas of the brain.  Like the previous MRI, the newer fMRI once again depicted visible abnormalities, with experts stating that “neuropathological dysfunction stemming from long-term use/abuse of opioid drugs” interfered with Valdes’ natural “free will and ability to control and inhibit his behavior.”

It’s a key piece of evidence — but the defense won’t get to use it.  Late last month, Judge DeCaria granted the prosecution’s request to block two of the defense team’s medical experts from addressing the fMRI and the important information it reveals.  Regarding his decision, Judge DeCaria expressed concerns that the fMRI data had not been analyzed “by an independent third party,” and asserted that fMRIs are more appropriately used as a diagnostic tool for “mild concussive injuries.”

However, an American Psychological Association publication entitled Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: A New Research Tool states that researchers are “using this technology to help answer classic questions within psychology.  How do people make decisions?”  It goes on to add that fMRIs can be used to study conditions like dyslexia and autism — which are not caused by physical injuries like concussions — as well as general decision-making processes.  A study titled “Studying mind and brain with fMRI” published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience also states fMRIs “have been instrumental in establishing correlations between brain and behavior.  […]  They are beginning to permit us to understand consistencies and inconsistencies in human behavior, as accounted for by consistencies and inconsistencies in brain activation.”

This case goes to show how critical a strong defense can be when you’re facing serious charges.  To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a Utah criminal defense lawyer, call Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287, or contact us online today.