Closing arguments begin on issue of mental retardation in death penalty case

Juan Carlos Rodriguez

Juan Carlos Rodriguez

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Closing arguments will begin Thursday afternoon on whether a Winston-Salem man convicted of killing and decapitating his wife is mentally retarded as defined under state law.

The issue will ultimately determine whether Juan Carlos Rodriguez will face the death penalty because state law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibit the execution of defendants who are determined to be mentally retarded, or intellectually disabled.

Juan Rodriguez, 38, was found guilty Monday of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury in connection to the 2010 death of his wife, Maria Magdalena Rodriguez.

This morning, attorneys for Juan Rodriguez called Greg Olley, a psychologist and a clinical professor at the UNC School of Medicine, as a rebuttal witness.

Olley, who did not evaluate Rodriguez, testified in general about the contributing factors that could lead to a diagnosis of mental retardation. He said that those factors include traumatic experiences such as exposure to daily violence, limited educational opportunities and extreme poverty.

Under state law, defendants are considered mentally retarded if their IQ is below 70, they have significant difficulty in performing basic functions, such as taking care of themselves, and that their mental retardation began before the age of 18.

Dr. Stephen Kramer, a forensic psychiatrist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, testified for prosecutors that Juan Rodriguez was not mildly mentally retarded. He also testified that Juan Rodriguez demonstrated an ability to do certain basic tasks, such as paying his bills, renting an apartment and obtaining a driver’s license.

Antonio Puente, a neuropsychologist from Wilmington, testified that Juan Rodriguez had mild mental retardation, partly based on his IQ score of 61. Puente also testified that Juan Rodriguez had significant impairments in being able to apply what he learned in school to real life and in communicating.

Two other experts for the defense – Dr. Moira Artigues, a forensic psychiatrist from Cary, and Selena Sermeno, a psychologist from New Mexico – testified for the defense that Juan Rodriguez’s childhood growing up in war-torn El Salvador greatly affected his intellectual development. They also testified that Juan Rodriguez was exposed to extreme poverty and lacked access to medical care.

Juan Rodriguez was exposed to almost daily violence, and his family had to move off their land because guerilla soldiers told them that the land would be mined.

Prosecutors allege that Juan Rodriguez strangled his wife to death and decapitated her on Nov. 18, 2010. The next day, two of her friends reported her missing, and her body was found Dec. 12, 2010, in a wooded area at the end of Williamsburg Road in the Minorcas Creek area off Bethabara Park Road. Her skull was found May 29, 2013 in the Belews Creek area of Forsyth County.

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