Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hillsborough judge declares mistrial in machete murder case


Near the end of a murder trial for the man accused of killing her mother, 19-year-old Jennifer Fonseca said she had no faith in the legal system.

The day before, she told a jury how she and her 16-year-old sister saw their mother, Danitza Fonseca, 50, hacked to death last year with a machete. But on Wednesday morning, she said she expected no conviction for Alexander Cote Ferrer, 40, charged with second-degree murder.

"It's all bull----," she said.

Two hours later, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge William Fuente declared a surprise mistrial.

Earlier, Cote Ferrer had told his attorney he was hearing voices in his head. Under Florida law, the judge was then required to immediately get three expert opinions on his competency to stand trial.

After examining Cote Ferrer for 30 minutes each, two psychologists declared him incompetent. A third found him competent for trial, but too incompetent to testify in his own behalf.

That was enough for Fuente to dismiss the jury.

The questions raised by prosecutors: Was the defendant faking it? Or could he have made himself incompetent by not taking his medicines? Cote Ferrer was said to be taking the mood stabilizer Depakote, but it was unknown Wednesday whether he had skipped his medication in jail.

The issue is a rare one, but came up last year in Hillsborough Circuit Court when convicted cop killer Carlos Bello avoided sentencing for the 13th time since 1987 by refusing to take his psychotropic medications.

Tampa psychiatrist Walter Afield also recalls an opposite — a 1983 case in which a man named Billy Ferry set off a gasoline fire in a Tampa grocery, killing five shoppers.

He was found competent — despite saying he wanted to kill Russians hiding under the store — and was sentenced to death. But the death penalty was overturned, and Ferry was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences and sent to a state hospital.

In Wednesday's machete murder case, psychologist Debra Goldsmith told the judge that Cote Ferrer was "not competent, no question." She said he may suffer from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder.

Psychologist Bruce Whiting told the judge it was possible Cote Ferrer was faking it, or "malingering," but given his medical history, Whiting said, "He appears genuinely psychotic."

The third expert, psychologist Edward Whyte, equivocated, saying he saw no evidence of a personality disorder, but did find him incompetent to testify in his own behalf.

Legal experts stress that incompetency is not the same as insanity.

Insanity means a defendant was unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the crime, said Tampa defense attorney Rick Terrana. Incompetency means a defendant is incapable of understanding or assisting in his own defense. It can occur before or during trial.

A finding of incompetency is by no means a victory for the defendant, experts say.

"At best it's a short reprieve," said Charles Rose, a criminal law professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. "As soon as competency is restored, they go right back to trial."

In his 20 years of practicing law, Terrana said, he has never seen a defendant avoid conviction by claiming incompetency.

On Wednesday, the psychologists estimated it would take three to six months in a mental institution to restore Cote Ferrer's competency.

By the time the mistrial was declared, Jennifer Fonseca, the victim's daughter, had already gone home.

John Barry can be reached at or (813) 226-3383.

Hillsborough judge declares mistrial in machete murder case 08/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 11:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas County receives $30 million for beach renourishment

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– While Pinellas beaches continually rank among the best in America, they need help to stay that way.

    The Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $30 million to help with beach renourishment at several Pinellas locations, including including Sand Key, Treasure Island and Upham Beach. This photo from 2014 shows how waves from high tides caused beach erosion at Sunset Beach near Mansions by the Sea condominium complex SCOTT KEELER   |   Times

  2. Straz Center parking squeeze infuriates patrons, motivates search for solutions


    TAMPA — When the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts opened 30 years ago, it welcomed just 30,000 patrons its first year.

    Fireworks shoot into the sky over the David A. Straz Jr. Center For The Performing Arts. [SCOTT MCINTYRE, Times]
  3. Video shows naked man who stole swan sculpture in Lakeland, deputies say


    The Polk County Sheriff's Office is searching for a large swan sculpture that was stolen from a Lakeland cold storage facility last weekend, possibly by a naked man.

    The Polk County Sheriff's Office says this naked man stole a large black and white swan sculpture, upper right, from a Lakeland storage facility last weekend. Surveillance video showed the man walking into Lakeland Cold Storage. [Polk County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Fennelly: Dirk Koetter's apology no way to keep this fidget spinning


    TAMPA — It all began with a fidget spinner.

    This tweet from the Bucs, mocking the Falcons' 28-3 lead they lost in the Super Bowl against the Falcons, prompted a public apology from head coach Dirk Koetter, who called it "unprofessional and not smart."
  5. Jeb money trickles into Putnam's bid for governor


    Money from a Jeb Bush super PAC has made its way into Florida’s 2018 governors race.
    A year ago, Bush’s Right to Rise PAC put $1,171 in money