SANTA FE, Texas – On Friday, families of Santa Fe High School shooting victims crowded a Galveston County courtroom for the first public hearing in this case in more than two years.
A new judge is presiding over the case and wants more answers as to why the charged gunman, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, remains incompetent to stand trial.
Pagourtzis is charged with murdering eight of his classmates, two educators and wounding several others during a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in May 2018.
The case has been in limbo since 2019 when Pagourtzis was declared incompetent to stand trial and committed to North Texas State Hospital.
“I think that North Texas State Hospital has had one task over the last, almost four years now, which was to restore competency and it appears they’ve failed at this point,” Galveston County Judge Jeth Jones said during the hearing.
Jones then issued an order to have UTMB’s director of mental health services, Dr. Jospeh Penn, conduct an independent evaluation of Pagourtzis’s competency. The judge ordered North Texas to allow Penn at least two days of access to Pagourtzis. Jones also set a 30-day deadline to complete the evaluation and provide the court with a report.
Jones said he will then call for another hearing to discuss the findings of Penn’s evaluation. Galveston County district attorney Jack Roady had no objections to the outside evaluation.
“We’ve got confidence in Vernon State Hospital, they are the state mental health hospital and that’s their business to restore defendants to competency. However, if the court wants to bring in another expert to evaluate that, we welcome that,” said Roady. “We are cautiously optimistic about this. The families and the victims have waited a very long time for justice.”
Defense attorney Nick Poehl questioned the necessity of the order, saying he has more than 8,600 pages of medical records showing Pagourtzis is still incompetent.
“Unlike the court, we have reviewed the medical records and there’s no evidence anything has changed so I’m left wondering what today was about,” said Poehl. “As a threshold matter, we’re not opposed to him being evaluated as many times as anybody wants, but the fact is he has been subject to evaluation over, and over, and over again.
Poehl and Jones sparred over whether the law allows for an independent evaluation at this time. Poehl argued the law states a competency evaluation cannot be ordered until 91 days after the last evaluation. Poehl pointed out Pagourtzis was just recommitted to the hospital on Feb. 1 and the 91-day timeframe doesn’t expire until May 3.
Poehl also argued the law requires some evidence of a change in behavior before the judge can order a full competency evaluation.
“It’s the court’s opinion defense counsel is misreading the statute,” Jones said before issuing his order.
Family members are cautiously optimistic about Jones’ attempt to gather more information. However, many said they know an independent evaluation could lead to the same result and the case remaining in limbo.
“No one should be having to ride this roller coaster. It’s not the life you imagined living,” said Scot Rice, whose wife Flo was critically wounded.
Rhonda Hart’s daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was killed and she says she’s tired of waiting for answers because the case can’t go to trial.
“We’re coming up on five years, we’re sick of this. Cut the crap and let’s just get to it,” said Vaughan.
The judge did make a surprise statement that he also wants to revisit the decision the previous judge made to have a trial moved out of Galveston County to Fort Bend County. However, he said he would hold that discussion on another day.
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