UPDATED: Prosecutors to seek death penalty in killing of Bullhead City girl

Defendant ordered to undergo psychological testing

Justin James Rector

Justin James Rector

KINGMAN - Justin James Rector will face the death penalty if he is convicted of first-degree murder in the strangulation death of Bella Grogan-Cannella, 8, whose body was found in a shallow grave near her Bullhead City home Sept. 3.

Prosecutors Greg McPhillips and Melissa Barry must first convince jurors that Rector, 26, is guilty of the girl's death by strangulation. They must then demonstrate there are aggravating factors that make the crime death-penalty eligible when the case goes to trial - something that might not take place for months, if not years.

A sampling of possible aggravating factors includes a second charge Rector faces in the case, kidnapping, which is defined by state law as a serious offense that was allegedly committed in tandem with the murder.

That the crime was committed in an "especially heinous and cruel manner," said McPhillips, is another factor he and Barry will seek to prove at trial. The suffering of the victim and the fact she was under 15 years of age are other factors, as was the "cold and calculated" manner in which the crime allegedly was committed.

The announcement that Mohave County intended to seek the death penalty appeared to take some spectators by surprise.

The hearing was initially scheduled to determine if Rector was competent to act as his own lawyer - and if he should be subject to a mental examination to judge if he is even competent to stand trial in the first place.

Mohave County Public Defender Harry Moore filed court papers on Rector's behalf stating the man wants to represent himself in court. Moore in separate court papers requested Rector undergo a psychological examination due to the effects of prolonged use of methamphetamine.

He told the judge Rector's chronic drug problem has left him unable to make sound decisions, as evidenced by his request to represent himself.

The knowledge that the death penalty was on the table didn't appear to faze Rector. He told Jantzen he still wanted to represent himself, and he said he understood the situation when Jantzen told him any decision would be postponed in light of the county's intent to seek the death penalty.

Certain protocols go into effect in death penalty cases, said Jantzen, including the defendant's right to have not one but two attorneys who meet the requirements to defend people facing the ultimate punishment.

Moore, a defense attorney for 31 years, is qualified to defend death penalty cases. Jantzen said he would file a request that a second qualified attorney be appointed to assist Moore. Funding for the attorney will come from the county's Indigent Defense Fund.

If Jantzen should find Rector is indeed competent to act as his own attorney, the two defense attorneys will act as "standby counsel" at his trial, said Jantzen.

Of more immediate concern is the defendant's mental state. McPhillips opposed Moore's request for the psychological exam, saying the public defender failed to provide sufficient facts to warrant the exam.

Moore said studies prove that it takes about 100 days after a meth user stops ingesting the drug before the brain begins to rebound from the abuse. He noted Rector, who told police he did meth the day of the killing, has been off the drug for about 60 days.

Both attorneys, however, agreed that Rector's desire to be his own lawyer demonstrated a lack of clear thinking.

Moore called it foolhardy. McPhillips quoted former President Abraham Lincoln, who famously said: "He who represents himself has a fool for a client."

The judge ordered Rector to undergo the psychological examination and set a Dec. 3 deadline to have it completed.

The next hearing in the case is Dec. 10, at which time Rector's request will be revisited and the doctor's findings should be ready for review.

Rector is accused of strangling Bella Grogan-Cannella sometime after midnight on Sept. 2, when other adults in the home reportedly went to Walmart. She was bare from the waist down when her body was discovered buried in a wash.

Evidence was sent to the state crime lab for testing, including DNA swabs to determine if the girl was molested - and by whom. McPhillips said the testing is pending.