A St. Bernard Parish prosecutor said Tuesday that his office will not seek the death penalty against a Chalmette man charged with killing his ex-wife with an ax two months ago.
Also on Tuesday, a St. Bernard judge ruled that the man, 56-year-old Mark Owens, is mentally competent to proceed toward trial on a grand jury indictment handed up last week charging him with murdering Kim Penney Owens and attempting to kill her mother.
A Chalmette man was indicted this week on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the brutal ax killing of his ex-wife in September…
Judge Robert Buckley's ruling came after two mental health experts had evaluated Owens, who a brother said was showing signs of being mentally disturbed before his ex-wife's death.
Neither doctor — psychiatrist Craig Troxclair and psychologist Gina Manguno-Mire — was called to testify. Attorneys for both sides said they believe that Owens understands the legal proceedings against him, the standard for mental competency at this early stage in the case.
Tuesday's decision won't prevent the defense from arguing at a trial that Owens should be found innocent by reason of insanity. Defense attorney Cullen Tonry suggested that he may pursue such a plea, though he entered only a plea of not guilty on Tuesday.
A report from Troxclair — filed into the court record Tuesday — said Owens has received inpatient psychiatric treatment on multiple occasions, though he would not always take the medications he was prescribed.
His latest treatment stint was in mid-September, when he checked himself into Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria because he had thoughts of killing Kim Owens and her ex-boss, former St. Bernard Parish President Dave Peralta, the report said.
Despite denials from Kim Owens and Peralta, the report said Mark Owens suspected they had a romantic affair. Mark Owens was given medication to take and was discharged from the Alexandria hospital on Sept. 25, two days before his ex-wife's killing.
Troxclair's report also noted that Mark Owens had previously been treated for painkiller addiction and that he considered his divorce from Kim Owens to have been "very stressful."
The Sheriff's Office said Mark Owens killed Kim Owens on the morning of Sept. 27. Hiding under her home in the 3100 block of Palmetto Street, he allegedly waited until she was leaving for work. He then emerged and rushed her with an ax, officials said.
Kim Owens’ mother screamed as the attack unfolded, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Officials have not described exactly how they believe Mark Owens tried to kill the mother, but she managed to escape and call 911.
Mark Owens escaped before deputies arrived but later turned himself in at a Sheriff's Office substation.
Mark Owens’ brother, Sam Owens, said shortly after the killing that his brother had attempted suicide twice after his divorce.
Sam Owens said his older brother visited him while he was still at large on the day of the killing. Sam Owens said his brother admitted he killed his ex-wife but that "demons" had made him do it.
Owens was charged with first-degree murder, which can bring the death penalty, and attempted murder.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Morales said in court that his office will not seek the death penalty so that it can try Owens on both charges at the same time. State law prohibits prosecutors from trying a death-penalty offense alongside other charges.
It's becoming common for local prosecutors to opt against seeking the death penalty in murder cases because of the likelihood of lengthy and expensive appeals in the event of a conviction. Convictions in death penalty cases also require a unanimous verdict, while in Louisiana a conviction in cases bringing a life sentence requires approval from just 10 of 12 jurors.
Mark and Kim Owens separated in 2014 after two decades of marriage. Some people close to Kim Owens, Peralta's former executive assistant, said they had long feared that she would be killed by her ex-husband, once a guard at the parish jail and an assistant road department supervisor.
Mark Owens entered a diversion program after one domestic disturbance that happened shortly before the couple's divorce was finalized.
Owens, who was shackled and in an orange prisoner's jumpsuit Tuesday, remains jailed without bail.
Kim Owens' mother, Peggy Browning, sat in the front row of Buckley's courtroom at 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette.
Sam Owens prayed his older brother, Mark, could somehow move on from his divorce and find help after two suicide attempts.