Mental evaluation of accused murderer in Catherine Kelley slaying could happen in Eagle | VailDaily.com

Mental evaluation of accused murderer in Catherine Kelley slaying could happen in Eagle

If the evaluation is done in Pueblo it won’t happen until May at the earliest

EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson claims she played no role in the murder of a Vail Valley woman.

Catherine Kelley died in her Pilgrim Downs home in January 2018 at the hands of Ackerson's husband, Jacob White, who in September of last year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. That plea deal came over the objections of Kelley's family, who wanted White to stand trial for capital murder. White is spending at least the next six decades in prison.

Prosecutors say Ackerson was part of the murder and charged her with eight felonies, including first-degree murder. If she's convicted, she will go to prison for life.

Ackerson pleaded not guilty to the felony charges and her attorneys, Amber St. Clair and Jennifer Melton, asked for a mental health evaluation. That evaluation will happen either at Colorado's criminal mental hospital in Pueblo, or in the Eagle County jail where Ackerson is being held without bond.

In a hearing Wednesday, District Court Judge Paul Dunkelman said that if the evaluation is done in Pueblo, it won't happen until May at the earliest. It could happen sooner if the state's mental health examiners travel from Pueblo to Eagle, Dunkelman said.

Defense attorneys are making Ackerson's mental condition an issue as part of their defense strategy, Melton said.

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In a previous hearing, Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum insisted Ackerson and White acted consciously and that they knew what they were doing.

"No one heads down in the middle of the night in sub-zero temperatures. This was not a random act. They knew exactly what they were doing," McCollum said.

Abused Ackerson?

Ackerson has suffered a lifetime of domestic abuse, her attorneys said in a previous hearing. She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household and was home-schooled.

That created a sense of isolation in the young woman, St. Clair said.

After she married White the abuse continued, her attorneys say.

"She essentially went from one abusive relationship to another," St. Clair said.

St. Clair and Melton asserted that Ackerson was a domestic violence victim and that she became a battered spouse after she married White and the abuse escalated.

"She was under White's abusive control," St. Clair said.

Ackerson's mental condition led to her compliance in entering Kelley's home, and to "be susceptible to him," St. Clair said.

White pleaded guilty

In a plea and sentencing hearing on Sept. 21, 2018, White admitted to Kelley's family that he helped kill Catherine and that he "hates" what he did.

Kelley’s family argued passionately that the 68-year sentence is not enough, and that White deserves a life sentence.

During that hearing, White read a long statement outlining what he said he and Ackerson did before, during and after they entered Kelley's home.

Because he's guilty of crimes of violence, White must serve at least 75 percent of his sentence. That means he will not be eligible for parole for 51 years.