New roadblock in Tulare County death penalty case

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A man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and unborn baby in 1981 is back in a Tulare County courtroom. (KFSN)

A man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and unborn baby in 1981 is back in a Tulare County courtroom.

An appeals court threw out the death sentence against Michael Hamilton, but now a new hurdle could keep a new jury from even deciding whether he deserves the death penalty.

Hamilton's attorney says his client is mentally incompetent to even go through a penalty trial to determine if he should go back to Death Row. It started Thursday with evidence about childhood abuse and brain damage, even as the defense admitted Hamilton is no dummy.

The jury sees the black and white striped suit Michael Hamilton wears to court. They see his quiet demeanor at the defense table. They see more than we're even allowed to show you since the judge won't allow us to record his face. But what they can't see is his heart, or his past. In 1981, he killed his young and pregnant wife Gwendolyn, leaving four kids parentless. Some of them are here, hoping he gets the death penalty again. But his defense attorney says they got a better life than Hamilton's parents gave him.

"Michael Hamilton didn't just have a bad childhood," said defense attorney Michael Cross. "His childhood, his adolescence was a virtual horror story."

The man condemned to die for the murders was subjected to indescribable abuse and neglect -- including being forced to watch his parents commit sex acts against his sister. And defense doctors say it rendered him incapable of making basic judgments or solve basic problems.

"When you look at that type of trauma, it's more than terrible things, said defense psychiatrist Dr. George Woods. "It changes your brain."

But Hamilton's IQ measures at 87, which is only a little below normal, and even one doctor admitted his impairment is not severe. He can do math. He can read. He can write. In fact, he's written several court documents the prosecution says prove he's fully competent to stand trial.

"Not only does he know what's going on he can process, he can think, reason and come up with plans," said Tulare County prosecutor Rick Tripp.

The jury will decide next week if Hamilton is competent to stand trial and if he is, the death penalty phase will begin.

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