Court questions mental capacity of accused murderer

Michael Purnell faces four hearings before 2014 trial
February 13, 2013

A man accused of murdering a 70-year-old woman is set to stand trial in 2014.  But prosecutors face a number of hurdles before trial that could preclude the death penalty in this case.

Police say Michael Purnell, 44, strangled Dorothy Gudger with a belt while raping her on Halloween night, 2011.  Gudger was an elderly woman who lived alone a few blocks away from Purnell's residence.

A jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2014.  Before that, four hearings are set to assess Purnell’s mental competency, his statements to police and evidence that may be used against him.

At a preliminary hearing Nov. 23, 2011, Delaware State Police Det. William Porter testified he was called to Gudger’s home on Barkantine Drive in the River Village community in Oak Orchard Nov. 2, 2011.   He said he found Gudger lying on her back in the living room of her home; her body was covered by an afghan, and a plastic bag was covering her face.  Neither Porter nor defense attorney Stephanie Tsantes commented on Purnell’s mental capacity at the preliminary hearing.

A competency hearing for Purnell is scheduled, Thursday, May 16.

According to Jules Epstein, associate professor of law at Widener University, a competency hearing usually determines whether the defendant is mentally capable of participating in the trial.  “The standard is whether he/she can understand the proceedings and meaningfully assist counsel,” Epstein said in an email.

A hearing on Miranda issues is scheduled, Monday, June 10.  “This would be a challenge to the admissibility of any statements made to police,” Epstein said.

At the preliminary hearing, Porter said when he questioned Purnell, the defendant told Porter he went to Gudger’s home intending to rape her, and as he did so, he strangled her with a belt.  Purnell said she was telling him to stop, Porter testified.

Purnell told Porter he then placed a plastic bag over Gudger’s head.  “Just in case she wasn’t deceased, he thought it would smother her,” Porter testified.

An autopsy confirmed Gudger had been raped, and she died of strangulation and asphyxiation, Porter said.

Porter also testified he has audio and video footage of Purnell’s confession at Troop 4 in Georgetown.

A hearing on Atkins matters is scheduled for 9 a.m., Monday, July 8.

In a 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled defendants with mental retardation are exempt from the death penalty.  Epstein said if Purnell is found to be mentally retarded, the case would move forward as a noncapital case, and prosecutors could not seek the death penalty for Purnell.

A Daubert hearing regarding DNA is scheduled, Monday, Aug. 5.  “This means there may be a challenge to the scientific reliability of certain forensic evidence,” Epstein said.

At the preliminary hearing, Tsantes said there was no physical evidence linking Purnell to the rape and murder of Gudger.

Porter said police took items from Purnell’s home, including a pair of work boots, a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt.  He said the state would likely have DNA evidence against Purnell at trial.