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Deal takes Acremant off death row, for now

ACalifornia man's death sentence for the 1995 slaying of a lesbian couple in Medford was reduced to life in prison Thursday because he was diagnosed as mentally delusional and unable to aid in his own appeals, authorities said.

Robert James Acremant, who has complained for years that he hears voices and says he has a transmitter in his head so others can control him, will remain in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder, kidnapping and robbery of Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill.

Federal law bans the executions of inmates who are not sufficiently mentally competent, and a federal appeals court ruling directs states to back off proceeding with death sentences of inmates not deemed mentally competent.

Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston and Acremant's defense team filed a judgment Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court that commuted Acremant's sentencing.

However, the agreement allows the county to seek reinstatement of the death sentence should new evidence show that Acremant feigned mental illness to skirt execution.

Prison psychiatrists have diagnosed him as mentally ill since 2003, according to Huddleston.

Huddleston said that while he and state Department of Justice attorneys suspected that Acremant may be feigning or exaggerating some mental-illness symptoms, they were unable to conclude he was pulling a fast one on several mental health professionals.

"I don't know, honestly," Huddleston said. "But if he's faking it, he's doing a good job.

"I'm, obviously, suspicious," Huddleston said. "But, in looking at all the evidence in the case, we clearly couldn't rebut the evidence that he was, in fact, suffering from a mental illness."

But even Thursday's events might not keep Acremant from the gallows.

Huddleston said Acremant likely will be shipped to California, where he was sentenced to death for the 1995 slaying of Scott George of Visalia, the son of a friend of Acremant's mother.

That case was unaffected by Thursday's court filing.

Acremant's lead attorney, Noel Grefenson of Salem, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Thursday's ruling concludes Acremant's 2005 appeal of his death-penalty sentence handed down by a jury in 1997. In 2008, Acremant's attorneys filed a motion to halt the appeal because of his mental illness and inability to assist his attorneys in that appeal.

A review of corrections documents show, as early as 2002, Acremant expressed delusional beliefs that he and most people at the Oregon State Penitentiary were "operations" or "ops" controlled by others, Huddleston said. Mental health records are confidential and not subject to open-records laws.

He also told fellow prisoners, corrections officers and others that he had a transmitter in his head so others could communicate with and control him, according to Huddleston.

Doctors hired by Acremant's defense team reviewed Acremant's records and concluded he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, Huddleston said. Corrections psychiatrists diagnosed him similarly.

Two mental health professionals hired by prosecutors reviewed the same records and concluded that Acremant very well could be suffering from a mental disease or defect, and there was insufficient evidence to show he was not.

Medford police Deputy Chief Tim George, who helped investigate the Abdill-Ellis murders, said he believes commuting Acremant's sentence to life without parole was probably the right thing to do, considering the legal issues.

"But I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't disappointed," George said. "Capital punishment should be reserved for those special few, and Bob Acremant is one of those special few. He's the reason there is such a statute."

Acremant pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and other charges in September 1996.

He lured Ellis, 53, and Abdill, 42, on Dec. 4, 1995, to a northeast Medford duplex apartment, where he tied and gagged them with duct tape. He shot them each twice in the head after forcing them to lie in the back of a pickup truck, which was discovered with the bodies in a nearby parking lot three days later.

Prosecutors at the time said Acremant killed the women in a desperate attempt to rob them of money he wanted to spend on a stripper whom he called his girlfriend.

Acremant made conflicting statements about why he killed the women. He told police at one point that, while he did not like lesbians, he killed the women for money.

The murders alarmed the gay community because Ellis and Abdill had worked on the campaign that defeated a statewide measure to limit the rights of homosexuals.

Acremant remained Thursday as one of 36 death-row inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, where state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jennifer Black said officials were unaware of Thursday's court filing.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Deal takes Acremant off death row, for now