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Serrano defense calls for state to pay for travel, research in Mexico

Defense attorneys want Montgomery County to pay for someone to research their client’s life in Mexico.

Attorneys for Pablo Serrano-Vitorino, a Mexican national and undocumented immigrant accused of killing Randy Nordman near New Florence last year, filed the motion in St. Louis City circuit court on Wednesday. The motion, from public defenders Don Catlett and Heather Vodnansky, asks the court to require Montgomery County to foot the bill of at least $59,000 on a mitigation specialist to travel to Mexico and research Serrano’s upbringing there ahead of his trial.

Serrano faces the death penalty for allegedly shooting Nordman at Nordman’s home on March 8, 2016. Law enforcement say that Serrano was on the run from a quadruple killing in Kansas City, Kansas earlier that week. Serrano faces a lengthy trial scheduled in October 2018 to take place in St. Louis.

A mitigation specialists research the background of a person facing the death penalty for juries to consider. The American Bar Association tasks these investigators to interview people “in a culturally competent manner” to help defense attorneys.

The motion claims the Missouri State Public Defender’s office rejected their request to pay for a mitigation investigator. That amount of money would hurt the office’s ability to help other clients, the motion said. The team requires a specialist fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable of Mexican culture. The only person outside the office that was willing to give a quote so far is Kristina Bishop, the motion said, and would cost $59,000 for travel and work.

Serrano needs the work done to ensure a fair trial, the attorneys wrote. Records sought include family medical histories and the environment in which Serrano was raised. From his birth to 17, the motion said, Serrano spent time in places like Juarez, Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas.

“Without access to evidence regarding Pablo’s mental health, medical, and social histories available only in Mexico, as well as character evidence available only through his family and friends who only speak Spanish, the jury will be deprived of mitigating evidence that is constitutionally required to consider,” the motion said.

Death penalty cases in Missouri are typically split into two parts. The “guilt phase” requires a jury to decide whether or not a person committed the crime at hand. If convicted, a separate jury serves for the “penalty phase.” Prosecutors must prove one of several “aggravating factors” in the crime that are laid out in state law before a jury can decide if death is the appropriate punishment. The defense is allowed to bring up character evidence during this phase, such as trauma the person experienced in the past or mental health issues.

Serrano’s case requires complicated work by a mitigating specialist, the attorneys wrote. Some records needed can only be obtained in person in Mexico. The specialist will have to travel to rural, impoverished parts of the country for Serrano’s case. The person must also build enough trust with people there, who may not understand the U.S. legal system, to get material that will help Serrano.

“In order for the defense to effectively defend Pablo, it must have the tools necessary to investigate the complex background of a defendant who speaks a different language and was raised in a different culture,” the motion said. “A bilingual mitigation specialist will assist the defense in interpreting the role that Pablo’s culture played in his alleged actions and the role that his culture played in forming his thought process, decision making and impulse control.”

Serrano was deported in 2004 after threatening to kill his wife in Los Angeles County. It’s unclear when he returned to the U.S., but Serrano was arrested in 2014 for DUI in Coffee County, Kan. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that six months before the shooting, it was alerted to Serrano being fingerprinted at the Overland Park Municipal Court while paying a fine. ICE, however, issued a detainer to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, and not the Overland Park Municipal Court.

Catlett did not return ABC 17’s call seeking comment. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Montgomery County Prosecutor returned ABC 17’s message on Thursday.

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