In Vargas Case, Prosecutors Bring Out the Big Guns

by Freda Moon, January 26, 2010

It’s official. The Aaron Vargas murder trial has entered the realm of theabsurd. Facing a tough trial in a county known for its independent, anti-authoritarian impulse, the District Attorney’s office, lead by ADA Beth Norman, has brought in the big guns.

Norman has solicited Emily Keram to bolster the case against Aaron Vargas. Keram is a nationally-known psychiatrist—and famous for her 120-hour Gitmo interview with Osama Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan. She later testified as a defense witness at Hamdan's trial. With Vargas's trial set to begin on March 1, Norman filed a motion last week that would allow Keram, the prosecutor's ace psychiatric witness, to evaluate—and possibly interview—Vargas without his lawyer.

The motion, briefly discussed at a pretrial hearing last Friday, is set to be argued on Feb. 5. Vargas's defense attorney, Tom Hudson, is opposing the evaluation, arguing that allowing the prosecution's psychiatric witness to interview Vargas without a lawyer and without doctor-patient confidentiality is a violation of Vargas's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Clearly sympathetic to Hudson's concerns about the new state statute that would allow the evaluation, Judge Ronald Brown asked Norman to submit a detailed list of the questions Keram intends to ask Vargas.

On February 8, it will have been one year since Vargas appeared on the doorstep of Darrell McNeill's trailer home gripping an antique cap-and-ball revolver. Vargas was heard saying, “You're not going to hurt anyone else again” before allegedly shooting the 63-year-old Fort Bragg businessman and waiting for him to die. Vargas's defense appears ready to argue that Vargas was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that night—that he had "diminished capacity" due to PTSD caused by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Darrell McNeill.

It's an argument that will likely put the victim in this case, Darrell McNeill, on trial—accused of sexually abusing not only Aaron Vargas, but McNeill's own children and who knows how many other Mendocino County boys and young men. In the defense's vision of the case, it was that abuse that directly contributed to Vargas's actions on the night of Feb. 8, 2009. The prosecution has challenged the relevance of that history and is will likely fight, during the trial, against McNeill's victims taking the stand as defense witnesses.

According to Vargas's sister, Mindy Galliani, Norman has asked that the criminal records of Vargas's father and older brother be admitted as evidence in Vargas's case. "Their whole thing is they're going to say that Aaron doesn’t suffer from PTSD, that the whole thing is just genetics, that we’re just a family of angry criminals or something," said Galliani. "They’re trying to say that my dad’s been in trouble for things, that my other brother has been in trouble for things. That it’s family dynamics, that’s what they said." (The judge has imposed a gag order on the attorneys in the case.)

The upcoming pretrial hearing—now scheduled for February 5 at 10am at Ukiah's county courthouse—will determine what of this history can be raised in the upcoming trial.

Read previous stories on the Vargas case or to see video of the following interview with Mindy Galliani, visit our archives.

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