A man accused of stabbing to death a Modesto man tried to plead guilty and accept the maximum prison sentence Wednesday, but the judge said she could not accept his plea without knowing he fully understands what he's doing.
Forrest Eric Heath tried to enter the guilty plea without first getting approval from his defense attorney. The Stanislaus County district attorney's office had not offered him a plea deal.
Authorities said they believe Heath stabbed 32-year-old Jimmy Espinoza Jr. A passer-by discovered Espinoza's body about 1:50 p.m. on Sept. 12 in an alley just north of the Modesto Senior Citizens Center in the 200 block of Bodem Street.
Heath, 32, appeared Wednesday morning in Stanislaus County Superior Court for an arraignment hearing.
Never miss a local story.
Ernie Spokes, Heath's defense attorney during his preliminary hearing earlier in July, told the judge that the defendant is indigent and no longer can afford to retain him as counsel for the trial.
Before the judge was able to deal with that issue, the defendant spoke up in court.
'I'll take the max'
"I'd like to plea guilty, anyway," Heath told the judge. "I'll take the max."
Judge Linda McFadden advised the defendant that entering such a plea probably wouldn't be in his best interest because prosecutors have not offered him a deal. Also, the court hadn't appointed a new attorney to represent him.
"That could be spending the rest of your life behind bars," the judge told the defendant.
Heath replied, "I understand."
The judge eventually appointed Spokes to represent Heath at taxpayers' expense.
McFadden said Spokes has represented Heath from the beginning and has a rapport with the defendant. She said the public defender's office advised that it would need about three months to get up to speed on the case.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's hearing, the judge asked Heath to enter a plea. The defendant asked her, "I can't plea guilty?"
The judge told Heath, "I'm not going to accept a guilty plea until I know you fully understand what you're doing."
McFadden ordered forensic psychologist Phil Trompetter to conduct a mental health evaluation of Heath.
The defendant told the judge he didn't want to be examined again by Trompetter, because he determined that Heath was mentally fit to be prosecuted.
Heath's mental competency first came into question in February. The case was suspended until the court ruled that Heath was mentally healthy enough to face the murder charge.
Deputy District Attorney John Baker asked the judge why Trompetter has to examine Heath a second time, questioning why Heath's mental health had become an issue again.
Baker asked the judge, "Is this just based on the fact that he wants to plea guilty?"
The judge said Trompetter will evaluate Heath, produce a supplemental report on the defendant's competency and submit the report to the court. McFadden suspended the criminal case until the court can determine whether Heath is mentally fit to stand trial.
She scheduled Heath to return to court Sept. 9 for a mental competency hearing. Heath remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail as he awaits trial.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.