December 11, 2012

Jury selection date set in 84-year-old Winton man's homicide

A Feb. 19 jury selection date has been set in the case of a woman accused of murder in the 2009 death of 84-year-old Winton resident Savino Herrera Baiz.

Defendant Rachelle Lynn Hampton, 40, appeared in Merced County Superior Court for a brief hearing Tuesday morning.

Hampton's case had been scheduled to move forward to jury selection this week. But Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall, the prosecutor in the case, said his office is still awaiting the results of DNA tests on the evidence, conducted by the Department of Justice. As a result, Judge Ronald Hansen agreed to move jury selection to February.

Hampton is accused of shooting Herrera after an argument, although it's still unclear what the alleged argument was about. Detectives believe the defendant had been staying with the victim at a residence on Fairlane Avenue when the killing happened.

DNA could play a crucial role in the case, particularly because when Merced County Sheriff's deputies found Baiz's body, there were strands of hair in his clenched hands, according to court documents.

Hampton’s own words during interviews with detectives could work against her in court. According to court records, when detectives asked Hampton whether she could have killed Baiz, she replied that it was possible.

On the flip side, Interim Public Defender Eric Dumars, Hampton's attorney, has raised many questions about whether his client was sane at the time of the incident.

She's entered a dual plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. If Hampton is found guilty by jurors, a second phase of the trial will take place to determine whether she was sane.

Two doctors have determined Hampton was insane at the time Baiz was killed, Dumars said. During questioning by detectives, Hampton also made several outrageous statements. For example, she claimed to be a forensic expert for the FBI, and said she could "reattach heads" that had been decapitated.

Dumars said although Hampton was living at the residence and knew the victim, she has no recollection of the killing and suffers from delusions.

While Dumars said his client does understand that she has mental illness issues, she doesn't believe that she's capable of that level of violence. Dumars said Hampton has been treated at Napa State Hospital. "She doesn't believe that she did this, if this in fact happened as the DA says that it occurred," Dumars said.

According to court documents, the District Attorney's Office on Oct. 1 and Nov. 5 offered a plea agreement to Hampton. Both agreements would have meant Hampton would have to a plead no contest to murder, in exchange for an indefinite stay at a state mental hospital.

On both occasions, Hampton appeared ready to move forward with a plea agreement, but then declined before the agreement could be completed.

An autopsy conducted on Baiz's body determined he was shot twice in the abdomen at close range, in addition to what appeared to be a gunshot to his lower lip. The autopsy also determined there was blunt force trauma to Baiz's skull. He also had broken ribs, and there was evidence he’d been strangled.

Hampton remains at the Merced County Jail in lieu of $1.1 million.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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