WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Juan Carlos Rodriguez, who was convicted Monday of killing and decapitating his wife three years ago, now faces the possibility of a death sentence after a Forsyth County jury found that he was not mentally retarded as defined under state law.
The jury deliberated about four hours before rendering its verdict around noon Friday, setting into motion another phase of a first-degree murder trial that has gone on for more than a month.
Robert Campbell and Kim Stevens, attorneys for Juan Rodriguez, presented evidence over the past week that Juan Rodriguez had an IQ of 61 and that his early childhood growing up impoverished in war-torn El Salvador negatively affected his intellectual development and contributed to his becoming mildly mentally retarded before the age of 18.
Forsyth County prosecutors called Dr. Stephen Kramer, a forensic psychiatrist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, to rebut that evidence. Kramer testified that Juan Rodriguez was not mentally retarded, or intellectually disabled, and that he did not have significant deficiencies in being able to do basic functions, such as paying bills.
The issue was critical because state law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibit the execution of defendants determined to be mentally retarded. Under state law, a person is 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.
If the jury had determined that Juan Rodriguez was mentally retarded, he would have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the only other sentence available for a conviction of first-degree murder.
Judge Stuart Albright of Forsyth Superior Court sent the jury home Friday afternoon. The 12 jurors and three alternates are scheduled to return Monday for the sentencing phase.
The prosecutors – Assistant District Attorneys Patrick Weede, Mike Silver and Jennifer Martin – will present aggravating factors and other evidence to persuade the jury that Juan Rodriguez deserves the death penalty.
Campbell and Stevens will present mitigating evidence to persuade the jury that Juan Rodriguez should be given a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors allege that Juan Rodriguez strangled Maria Rodriguez, 31, to death and then decapitated her on Nov. 18, 2010. She was reported missing Nov. 19, 2010, and on Dec. 12, 2010, her body was found in a wooded area at the end of Williamsburg Road, near the house prosecutors say Juan Rodriguez was staying while the couple was separated. Her skull was discovered May 29, 2013 in the Belews Creek area of Forsyth County.
Martin told Albright Friday that their evidence should last less than a day. Campbell said it will take two to three days to present their evidence.