Joseph Ward, accused of Nevada County murder, found competent | TheUnion.com

Joseph Ward, accused of Nevada County murder, found competent

Jurors decided in under an hour Wednesday that Joseph Ward is competent to stand trial for murder, setting the stage for a second trial on that accusation within months, attorneys said.

Ward, 32, is accused in the June 2017 slaying of Kenneth Pestana, 61, at the older man's Highway 20 home. Questions about Ward's competency led to a trial on whether he understood the criminal proceedings against him and if he had the ability to assist his attorney with trial.

That competency trial began last week. Jurors heard evidence that Ward believed Pestana had the authority to kill people and served as a government informer. They also heard that Ward said he had a "chip" implanted in his head.

The jury began deliberating Wednesday afternoon, returning quickly with a verdict.

Attorneys are expected on Monday to discuss potential trial dates on the murder charge, Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh said.

"The jury did their job in following the law and making the correct decision," Walsh said. "We look forward to now proceeding to jury trial on the guilt phase of this case so that justice can have its day in court."

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Tamara Zuromskis, Ward's deputy public defender, said it's possible a judge would schedule her client's murder trial within two months.

"I disagree with the verdict, but I thank the jury for their service," Zuromskis said.

Both Zuromskis and Walsh delivered their closing arguments to jurors Wednesday afternoon.

Walsh argued that Ward's attorneys must prove he has a mental disorder and that he was unable to assist them in his defense for jurors to find him incompetent. They also must prove that Ward couldn't understand the criminal proceedings against him and his role in them.

"The law presumes a defendant is mentally competent," Walsh said. "The defense has to prove he's not."

Walsh referred to a series of recorded jail phone calls played for jurors during the trial. Walsh called Ward desperate in those calls. Ward knows he faces a murder charge, and at one point said he was fighting for his life.

In other calls Ward suggests his family find a key witness and tell her what to relay to authorities — proof that he could help his defense attorneys if he wanted, Walsh argued.

In another call Ward mentioned the discovery of his blood on Pestana's boots, the prosecutor said.

"He knew how significant that blood was," Walsh added.

Jurors also heard Ward in jail calls talk about his belief that Pestana worked for the government and had the authority to kill people. Ward said bodies were buried on Pestana's property, and that he saw steam that made bodies disappear issue from his house.

Testimony revealed that Pestana did, in fact, serve at one point as an informant for law enforcement.

Delivering her final arguments, Zuromskis said Ward's belief in that one truth doesn't make him competent. Pestana, she noted, had no license to kill and wasn't working for the Hell's Angels, another claim her client made.

Zuromskis told jurors Ward failed to meet the legal definition of competency. He didn't understand the purpose of the criminal proceedings, didn't understand his status within those proceedings and couldn't help her in his defense.

Zuromskis played recordings of Ward for the jury. In one call Ward urged a relative to find the bodies buried in Pestana's yard. She said authorities caught that relative months later near the property with a shovel.

"Listen to the desperation in his voice," she said of Ward. "Listen to his panic."

Shifting to Ward's ability to understand his role, Zuromskis said her client focused on uncovering a conspiracy, not his own defense. Ward believes he'd save lives if he could reveal that conspiracy.

Honing in on her client's cooperation with her, Zuromskis said Ward believes she's working with the District Attorney's Office against him.

"He's talking to detectives without his attorney's presence or knowledge," she said. "That's how desperate he is to share these beliefs. He's not stupid. He's delusional. Why is he doing these things? Because he's mentally ill."

Ward has insisted he's competent — a common belief among those who are mentally ill. In fact, Ward yelled to jurors at one point that he was competent when Zuromskis left the courtroom, she said.

"He blurts out in court that his bizarre beliefs are true," she said. "You can consider that."

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.