gavel.jpgThe California Supreme Court today upheld the murder conviction and sentence of life without parole of a Contra Costa County man who killed a San Pablo chef during a carjacking in 1997.

The court, in a ruling issued in San Francisco, unanimously rejected defendant James Ary’s contention that he didn’t receive a fair hearing on his claim that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial in 2000.

Ary was convicted in Contra Costa County Superior Court in 2000 of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Ronnie Ortega, 22, a chef at San Pablo Casino, as Ortega sat in his car at an intersection in San Pablo shortly before midnight on Aug. 14, 2007.

The jury also found special circumstances of lying in wait and committing murder during a robbery and a carjacking. After jurors deadlocked on whether to impose a death penalty, Ary was sentenced in 2001 to life in prison without possibility of parole.

In his appeal, Ary argued he was incompetent to stand trial in 2000 because he was mentally retarded. He claimed he was denied his federal constitutional right to a hearing on whether he was competent.

In 2004, a Court of Appeal panel in San Francisco agreed and sent the case back to Contra Costa County Superior Court.

In an unusual twist, although Superior Court Judge Garrett Grant did not order a competency hearing at the time of trial, evidence of Ary’s mental condition in 2000 was available because there had been a hearing on a separate issue of the admissibility of a confession.

The evidence included a defense psychologist’s testimony that Ary was mentally retarded and had received IQ test scores of 45, 58 and 59.

Grant concluded there was enough evidence from the time of trial to allow a determination and held a competency hearing in 2005. After hearing conflicting analyses from prosecution and defense experts, the judge ruled that Ary hadn’t met the burden of proof of showing that he was mentally incompetent in 2000.

Ary appealed again, and in a second decision, the Court of Appeal said by a 2-1 vote in 2009 that since the hearing was held after the trial, it was only fair that prosecution rather than the defense should have the burden of proof.

Which side has the burden of proof is a crucial issue and “will be the determinative factor in most cases in which competency is determined” after a trial, the appeals court said.

But in today’s decision, the state high court set aside the appeals court’s standard and said the burden of proof should remain with the defendant.

Justice Joyce Kennard, writing for the court, noted that the defendant has the burden of proof in competency hearings before trial and said the standard should be the same in post-trial hearings.

“The defendant will be placed in a position comparable to the one he would have been placed in prior to the original trial,” Kennard wrote.

The high court decision ends Ary’s direct appeals of his conviction and sentence. Some other claims Ary raised on appeal were rejected in a separate Court of Appeal ruling in 2008, and the state Supreme Court declined to review that decision.

Ary can continue to challenge his conviction through a habeas corpus petition in federal court, however. His appeal lawyer, Kyle Gee of Oakland, was not available for comment today.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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