Case against murder suspect allowed to move forward

Judge finds Joseph Underwood competent to stand trial

Posted 4/18/24

A man accused of murdering a Cheyenne woman and dumping her body outside Cody in 2019 appears mentally fit to answer to criminal charges, a judge ruled last week. The ruling allows the prosecution of …

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Case against murder suspect allowed to move forward

Judge finds Joseph Underwood competent to stand trial


A man accused of murdering a Cheyenne woman and dumping her body outside Cody in 2019 appears mentally fit to answer to criminal charges, a judge ruled last week. The ruling allows the prosecution of Joseph Underwood on multiple felony and misdemeanor charges to resume after a year-and-half on hold.

However, given Underwood’s past brain damage and cognitive issues, multiple accommodations will be needed to ensure the 49-year-old can keep up with the court proceedings and participate in his defense, Park County Circuit Court Judge Joey Darrah wrote in his April 10 order.

Darrah said he plans to use simpler language at an upcoming preliminary hearing and slow down the proceeding — including directing attorneys and witnesses to speak clearly and slowly, pausing between questions and answers, and repeating information when needed. The judge also said Underwood should be allowed to request breaks as needed, while both he and a third party — perhaps a second defense attorney — will monitor Underwood to ensure he’s tracking the proceedings.

“... Despite defendant’s cognitive deficits, the preponderance of the evidence shows that defendant’s condition is not so severe as to render him incompetent to appear in necessary legal proceedings if proper accommodations are instituted …,” Darrah wrote.


Competency concerns

Over the past four-and-a-half-years, questions about Underwood’s competency have hung over prosecutors’ attempts to hold him accountable for the November 2019 murder of Angela Elizondo. The Cheyenne resident and mother was 40 years old at the time of her death.

Each psychiatrist who’s evaluated Underwood in recent years has concluded that he understands why he’s been charged and the potential penalties if he’s convicted. But the experts have disagreed on whether Underwood can keep up with what’s happening in court.

“Because of his neurocognitive impairments, it’s very difficult for him to keep up with what’s going on in court, to process hearing testimony in real time or hearing lawyers argue in real time, and then communicate that effectively to his attorney during trial,” Dr. Daniel Martell testified at a hearing last month.

Martell, who was called by the defense, opined that the only way to know whether accommodations are working “is to go so slow and probe [Underwood’s understanding] so frequently that it becomes pretty impractical.”

However, Dr. Steven Nelson testified on behalf of the state that he suspects the defendant isn’t as confused as he claims. Nelson said he believes the court can accommodate Underwood’s cognitive impairments.

“There’s obviously something wrong with Mr. Underwood,” Deputy Park County Attorney Jack Hatfield said, but “the fact that he’s slow isn’t any different than just about every other murder defendant in this country. You don’t have to have 150 IQ to get tried for murder.”

Nelson testified that Underwood appeared to have “borderline intellectual functioning,” which would put his IQ in the roughly 71-84 range. That reflects a person who has below average intelligence, but doesn’t have an intellectual disability. Hatfield said that’s “good enough” for a person to be tried.

However, Underwood’s court-appointed defense attorney, Sam Krone, argued that moving forward would run afoul of Underwood’s constitutional rights.

Even if accommodations are attempted, “we can’t guarantee that Mr. Underwood’s constitutional rights would be protected,” Krone said.


The allegations

Elizondo’s body was found in a remote area south of Cody weeks later and Underwood was caught at the scene. Following a flight from and standoff with authorities, Underwood was taken into custody, where he allegedly told agents that he might have fatally strangled Elizondo during an argument. He also admitted having sexual contact with the woman’s corpse before transporting the body to Cody, according to charging documents.

Then-Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove — who has since been disbarred — initially charged Underwood with first-degree murder and other charges. However, she dropped the case in 2022 after two experts found Underwood was not competent to proceed.

The Park County Attorney’s Office then brought its own charges related to Underwood’s alleged actions here — including attempting to hide Elizondo’s body and illegally possessing a firearm despite prior felony convictions. That case has been on hold for the past year-and-a-half as medical experts and attorneys have again evaluated and debated whether Underwood is competent to stand trial.


A traumatic history

Given that Underwood had to repeat both two grades, it appears he grew up with some cognitive problems, Martell said.

Underwood also suffered a severe brain injury in a 1992 motorcycle crash; he was in a coma for days and had to relearn how to walk and talk.

Criminal behavior and mental episodes have followed.

In 2004, he reportedly sprayed his then-girlfriend and two of her family members with bear spray, then threatened to jump off a bridge when authorities sought to take him into custody.

Then in the summer of 2014, he choked his 15-year-old son and threatened his then-wife with a loaded gun. He then got into an hours-long standoff with Cody police that culminated in him shooting himself in the head. Underwood was released from prison in May 2018.


Is he faking it?

In both the 2014 standoff and the 2019 murder, Underwood has claimed to have no memory of the events in question. While at the State Hospital, Underwood allegedly credited his amnesia for his Laramie County case being dropped.

“He essentially advised other inmates to say that they couldn’t remember … what happened when they committed a crime, because it worked for him to claim that he couldn’t remember what he had done …,” Dr. Nelson said of the account relayed to authorities by another inmate.

When in a courtroom or being interviewed by law enforcement, Underwood tends to blame his disabilities for his behavior, Nelson said. However, he said the defendant has also proven capable of taking care of himself and working a job as a commercial trucker.

“I have a strong concern that Mr. Underwood is either exaggerating or feigning some of the symptomatology that he’s presenting,” Nelson said. When someone does that in an effort to avoid responsibility, “then you have to question everything related to their presentation,” he added.

As for Dr. Martell, he said Underwood’s claimed amnesia is “certainly convenient,” but irrelevant to the question of Underwood’s competency. 

Among all the experts, there’s a consensus that Underwood has real brain damage and psychiatric issues, and Martell believes they limit his ability to process information in real time.

“Under the stress of trial in the real world, he’s going to be at a disadvantage …,” Martell said.


Moving forward

While Martell felt accommodations would prove impractical, Hatfield said he’d take as much time as needed, even if the preliminary hearing took five days rather than the usual hour or two. 

“I’ll give Mr. Krone 50 bucks so that we can get some energy drinks for Mr. Underwood so that he can keep up,” Hatfield said. “But what is not right is over four years later, the state is still being hampered in its ability to prosecute Mr. Underwood based on what he says is his problems and the inability of, so far, anybody willing to try what the [defendant’s] own experts are saying.”

Even if the accommodations prove inconvenient and cumbersome, Darrah indicated they should try to move forward. The exact nature of those measures will be determined at a future hearing.

Last month, Darrah expressed some concern about the process, asking how he’ll be able to tell if the accommodations are working for Underwood and suggesting he’ll wind up needing to rely on Krone’s opinion.

“I don’t know how you do that,” Krone said of determining the efficacy, adding, “It puts the court in a very difficult position.”

Before the start of the competency hearing, Elizondo’s mother, Cecilia, read a lengthy statement in which she expressed frustration with the judicial process and with media coverage that she said has lacked empathy and focused on the rights of Underwood.

Cecilia also spoke lovingly about her daughter.

“It is through her beauty, love and contagious laughter that we will continue to fight even though the darkness he [Underwood] has caused,” Cecilia said. “She has always been our shining light.”