VENTURA : Judge in Arson Case Appoints Defender

Despite the defendant's insistence that he be allowed to represent himself, a Ventura County Superior Court judge Thursday appointed the public defender's office to represent a man accused of setting a series of fires in downtown Ventura.

Ronald K. Sneed, 48, has pleaded not guilty to eight counts of arson stemming from the Oct. 7 fires, one of which caused $240,000 in damage to an American Red Cross office on East Santa Clara Street.

Sneed, a Santa Barbara resident who formerly lived in Oxnard, has represented himself at his two arraignments, his preliminary hearing and other proceedings. His court file is replete with hand-penciled motions seeking to suppress evidence, reduce bail and obtain a court-paid investigator, among other things.

This week, as the Jan. 6 deadline for starting the trial neared, the case was transferred from Judge Charles R. McGrath to Judge Barbara A. Lane. After presiding at pretrial hearings Tuesday and Thursday, Lane decided that Sneed was incapable of defending himself.

"I don't think he is competent," Lane said. "He has been totally non-responsive to every question I ask. He thinks he can just repeat phrases such as lack of evidence and that this will result in the charges being dismissed. That is not rational."

Lane also ordered Sneed to undergo evaluation by a psychologist and a psychiatrist appointed by the court. They will determine whether Sneed is competent to stand trial and whether he is able to assist his attorney.

The judge said her order would push back the speedy-trial deadline by three weeks. Sneed was ordered to appear back in McGrath's courtroom on Jan. 23.

Both Sneed and Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard E. Simon objected to the judge's decisions.

"I wish to represent myself," Sneed said, noting that both McGrath and the magistrate at the preliminary hearing--Municipal Court Judge Barry B. Klopfer--had allowed him to do so.

Simon, who later described Sneed as "a weird dude," told Lane that he believes the defendant "has an understanding of the process and has a strategy." He said he feared that delaying the trial and forcing Sneed to accept court-appointed counsel could create grounds for reversing a possible conviction.

Sneed remains in Ventura County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.

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