BENNINGTON — A Bennington murder defendant has again been ordered to undergo a mental competency evaluation after refusing to complete the procedure last month.
The defendant, Darren Pronto, is facing a first-degree murder charge in the slashing death of 26-year-old Emily Hamman in January. Pronto, 32, of Pownal, has pleaded not guilty.
Police earlier cited Pronto’s family as saying he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
On Wednesday, the Bennington Superior criminal court asked the Vermont Department of Mental Health to complete Pronto’s mental competency evaluation.
His initial evaluation, conducted in August, could not be completed “due to the defendant’s refusal to participate in the second and third examination,” Judge Cortland Corsones said.
The reason for Pronto’s refusal was not discussed. Defense attorney Fred Bragdon said he tried to make arrangements to attend the evaluation but didn’t get a response from the examining doctor.
Bragdon, or a representative, will be present at the next evaluation after the judge granted Pronto’s request.
Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage had questioned this arrangement, saying state law does not require an attorney to be present during the evaluation.
But Corsones sided with the defense argument that it is Pronto’s right to be represented by a lawyer.
“I’m gonna agree with the defense,” Corsones said. “That one’s an essential part of the criminal proceeding.”
Marthage later expressed concerns about whether the presence of a third person could influence the evaluation results.
“It very well could impact those standardized tests if they’re being done with a defense attorney in the room,” Marthage said. She added that prosecutors could use this issue in cross-examining the defense expert, but that not discussing it now would go against the interests of justice.
Awaiting a court decision, however, is Pronto’s request to audio record his conversation with the examining doctor. The judge said he first wanted to give the Department of Mental Health a chance to weigh in, particularly if the agency has policies that could be impacted by the audio recording.
Bragdon said he wanted the conversation recorded so it could be assessed by a mental health expert hired by the defense. The expert has said there are also “developmental issues” with Pronto, Bragdon told the court. The expert’s name is reportedly included in a court document, but it is currently sealed from public view.
State law allows defendants to find their own experts when issues of mental competency come up. Some case victims and their allies have criticized this as “expert shopping” by defendants in order to evade prosecution.
Hamman’s mother, Kelly Carroll, was among the people who advocated for an update to the law, allowing prosecutors to also seek their own mental health expert.
S.3, “an act relating to competency to stand trial and insanity as a defense,” was signed into law in June.
At the hearing Wednesday, Marthage said the prosecution will also seek a mental health expert.
“I’m gonna be looking at whatever evaluation Mr. Bragdon gets with an extremely sharp eye, and I will have (Pronto) evaluated by other professionals,” she said. “This is too serious of a case for me to just take the word of one doctor.”
It’s unclear when Pronto’s next evaluation will be done, or when the results will be available.