For nearly nine months since Sherry Ingold, then 58, was shot while delivering mail along Highway 35 in Carmack, her loved ones have remained silent about the murder charges against Roland Mitchell Dampeer, 28.
Dampeer is charged with shooting Ingold as she delivered mail at the home of Pearline Cummins, a retired nurse, on Jan. 16. Sherry succumbed to her injuries days later at UMMC in Jackson.
In addition to the federal murder charges, Attala County District Attorney Doug Evans said in March that Dampeer has been indicted locally in the Ingold death, as well as in the attempted kidnapping of 26-year-old Andrea Goss from inside the Sunflower supermarket in Kosciusko before attacking Ingold. (See related story)
Members of Sherry’s family say they have kept their silence at the request of federal officials from the US Postal Inspectors’ office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigations, who reportedly told them their comments could jeopardize Dampeer’s prosecution.
Now, family and friends fear that perhaps they waited too long to speak out.
“We have been very quiet. We have been quiet for nine months. We have ignored everyone because we didn’t want to jeopardize the case,” Sherry’s daughter, Kristy Ingold, told The Star-Herald during an exclusive interview Friday. “I regret that we didn't speak back then. But we will speak now.”
The family’s silence ended after they say they received a series of conflicting and confusing communications about the current status of the case against Dampeer during the past week.
On Monday, Oct. 5, family members say they received a call from a federal investigator informing them that — following a three-month psychological evaluation of the suspect — a report had been submitted to the court indicating that Dampeer is incompetent to stand trial. A hearing, the investigator told them, was tentatively set for Oct. 20.
A short while later, family members say they received an email generally confirming what the investigator had told them verbally.
Upset at the possibility that Dampeer may not stand trial, Ingold and her mother’s lifelong friend, Vickie Dees Gove, agreed to speak with The Star-Herald. But after federal officials again cautioned them to remain quiet until after the hearing, the family postponed the interview.
On Wednesday, Oct. 7, however, family members say they received another email notification, this one from the United States Department of Justice Victim Notification System (VNS).
The new letter sent them into a tailspin.
In closely reading the new communication, Kristy said she realized it indicates that Dampeer had already been found not guilty of Sherry Ingold’s murder by reason of insanity.
“As a result of the Court’s previous finding of not guilty by reason of insanity the defendant has been confined to a facility. The purpose of this (Oct. 20) hearing is to determine if the defendant should continue to be confined in order to receive mental health treatment,” the notification reads.
Furious, confused and upset, family members began calling federal authorities with whom they had prior communications. While one official told them the newest letter was correct, another said it was not, and a third said he was not even aware of the VNS letter, Kristy Ingold told The Star-Herald Friday.
Eventually, all of the officials reportedly came to agreement that the VNS communication is incorrect and had been sent in error.
“Now they were telling us that … this hearing will determine if he is eligible to stand trial and that our side is going to put up evidence that shows that he possibly is sane enough to try him,” said Gove. Officials, they were told, would probably request another psychological evaluation.
Despite their concerns, both said they planned to remain silent until after the Oct. 20 hearing.
But that all changed around 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, when the two women, each asleep in their own homes, say they were suddenly awakened.
“That’s when Sherry poked me and Kristy, at three o'clock in the morning,” said Gove.
“She said, ‘Y’all better get out there and speak!’ That's why I will not sit back any longer,” said Ingold.
Learning that Dampeer may be declared incompetent to stand trial — or that perhaps he already had been — shook the family’s faith that Dampeer will be held accountable for Sherry’s death.
“They told me I had nothing to worry about. He would get the death penalty or he would get life in prison. Those were the only two options,” Ingold said.
They hope becoming vocal will push officials and the court to find Dampeer competent for trial on the murder charges he currently faces.
“I firmly believe that if he can chase down Andrea (Goss), gun down Sherry, and run from the cops, he can stand trial,” said Gove. “We want this man to stand trial before us and before God.”
While Ingold hopes for a guilty verdict and a sentence of life in prison without parole, Gove and other Ingold family members favor a death sentence following a guilty verdict.
“The evidence is there. He needs to be found guilty, but I want to see him get life and never get out,” said Ingold.
Although the family believes officials’ intentions are good, recent events make it impossible for them to shake the fear that if Dampeer is found incompetent by the court, he will never be adequately held accountable for Sherry Ingold’s death.
“We will fight and we hope it isn’t too late,” said Kristy Ingold. “We want answers. We want justice. We want what is right.”
How the process works
After hearing the concerns expressed by the Ingold family, The Star-Herald contacted the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi, the agency that will prosecute Dampeer on the murder charges he now faces.
During a telephone interview Monday, Criminal Chief Bob Norman discussed the communications received by the Ingolds last week, as well as how cases involving potential competence issues or insanity pleas are handled by the court.
First and foremost, Norman said the Oct. 7 letter — the one that indicated that Dampeer had already been found not guilty by reason of insanity — was incorrect and should never have gone out.
“I know that the family got a very disturbing letter. They had every reason to be angry,” he said. “That letter was incorrect. There has been no hearing on his competence.”
What has happened, Norman said, is that the court has ordered an evaluation of Dampeer’s competence to stand trial because the suspect reportedly exhibited highly unusual behavior during and/or after the alleged commission of the crime.
Competence, the Criminal Chief said, is the ability of a suspect to understand proceedings against him and participate in his defense.
Norman said it is not unusual for the prosecution or court to be the first to request such an evaluation – which typically includes long-term 24/7 observation and testing of the suspect — since it ensures the evaluation is conducted by highly-trained forensic psychologists and psychiatrists.
A suspect like Dampeer being declared incompetent to stand trial would not stop the court process, he said.
“Even if the court does accept that current finding, that is nowhere near the end of the road,” said Norman. In that case, Dampeer would likely “be returned to treatment to restore competency.”
If through treatment — which can include medication — Dampeer is returned to competence, he would be brought back before the court to face trial.
At any point, the defense could offer a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The case could then still be tried in front of a jury, unless the prosecution accepts the plea. That, Norman said, is rarely done in murder cases, and always in consultation with a victim’s family.
Although there are no guarantees, Norman said Dampeer likely has only a slim chance of release someday.
“It is a long process and it is daunting for victims’ families, who can be frustrated by the focus being on the defendant’s rights,” said Norman, “but sanity issues generally resolve in favor of the prosecution.”
After the paper’s interview with Norman, Kristy Ingold said Norman called her to explain the process to her personally.
“Mr. Norman really made me feel better about the hearing coming up. He said the case is not near the finish line,” she said.
She said Norman told her of the very slim chance that Dampeer could someday be released if treated and found to no longer be a danger to the public.
“He said it is a very small chance, but the fact that there is even a small possibility of that happening does not sit right with my soul. So I will fight with all I have for justice to be served by some sort of life sentence, whether it be behind bars or in a mental institution,” Ingold said following the conversation. “If it takes years, I will fight for years. I will do what it takes to get justice for my momma, as I know that she would be doing for me.”