DADE CITY — Attorneys for a man convicted last year of strangling and stabbing a 46-year-old diner cook made a last-ditch attempt Tuesday to keep their client off death row by arguing that he suffered from brain abnormalities.
Two psychologists who examined brain scans and personality tests of Derral Wayne Hodgkins testified that parts of his brain were smaller than normal.
"The brain damage affects two regions that are very important for regulating emotional behavior, particularly behavior under stress," said Ruben C. Gur, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania and director of its brain behavior laboratory. "What we see is a type of abnormality in a resting state that could portend problems when someone is facing a task, particularly under stress."
Gur said Hodgkins' brain scans indicated that he had poor impulse control.
"This is as bad as we see in seizure disorders," he said. "It looks like in this default brain state, Mr. Hodgkins does not feel emotions, but there should be a lot of anxiety."
Hodgkins was released from prison in 2004 after serving nearly 17 years for raping a 12-year-old Hillsborough County girl. Sometime on Sept. 27, 2006, he went to the Land O'Lakes apartment of Teresa Lodge, a diner cook he knew some years earlier. Prosecutors say he got into a struggle with Lodge and strangled her. As she lay unconscious on her bedroom floor, he stabbed her seven times.
More than a year passed before he was arrested. That's when lab tests on scrapings taken from underneath Lodge's fingernails revealed Hodgkins' DNA. Prosecutors said it got there as Lodge clawed and scratched in vain to fight off the attack.
The case went to court in January 2011 but ended in mistrial after a state's witness mentioned Hodgkins' rape conviction. Seven months later, a new jury convicted Hodgkins of first-degree murder and recommended the death penalty.
Bjorn Brunvand, Hodgkins' attorney, attacked the DNA evidence during last year's trial, saying the state's DNA analyst had conceded that it was possible for people's DNA material to transfer to others through normal contact and that it can stay there even through multiple hand washings. At the hearing on Tuesday, however, the subject of DNA didn't come up. Instead they focused on Hodgkins' brain function.
Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa heard the evidence and will consider it, along with the jury's recommendation, before handing down a sentence on Feb. 1.
Hodgkins, a slim 53-year-old man with a closely cropped haircut and glasses, sat in an orange-striped jail uniform and watched quietly as the psychologists testified that he lacked the ability to control his behavior.
Prosecutors pointed out that in 1993 Hodgkins earned his high school equivalency while serving prison time on the rape charge.
They also asked Gur whether he examined any state Department of Corrections files in which Hodgkins denied any type of mental health problem in 1985, as well as a 1988 medical screening in which he denied any hospitalization for mental illness.
When he was put in solitary confinement for being a disciplinary problem, he didn't deteriorate emotionally, records showed.
"The records reflect that he responded very well to that stressor," Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin said.
He also questioned whether the simple examination of a brain scan and a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, could provide any valuable information about Hodgkins' motivation.
"You cannot say with any reasonable degree of psychiatric certainty that that brain abnormality caused Mr. Hodgkins to kill Teresa Lodge on Sept. 27, 2006," Martin said. "Isn't it true the only thing you can do is hypothesize and speculate based on a PET scan and MRI and brain abnormalities that you've testified to?"
Hyman Eisenstein, a Miami clinical psychologist who gave Hodgkins a variety of tests and interviewed his mother, said the results showed poor impulse control.
"She reported that as a young child, he was hyperactive; he had difficulty concentrating," Eisenstein testified.
Eisenstein said the test results, combined with letters Lodge sent him while in prison, "were totally consistent with brain damage.
He read part of a letter Lodge wrote Hodgkins in prison in which she urged him to slow down.
"I never realized you had such little faith in our friendship," the letter said. "Next time question, stop, listen and think about all possible circumstances concerning the situation, please . . ."
"She was clearly sensitive to what frontal lobes do," Eisenstein said. He said Hodgkins felt rejected by Lodge and was unable to control his impulses.
During cross examination, Martin pointed out that Hodgkins had been out of prison for two years before he murdered Lodge.
"Over two years transpired when he was out on the street controlling his emotions over the rejection he received two years prior to the murder," Martin said.