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Experts disagree over PTSD diagnosis in Nuñez sentencing

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 10/15/2021

Oct. 15—Mental health experts gave contradictory testimony during the third day of Jordan Nuñez's sentencing hearing about the impact his traumatic childhood had on his ability to resist participating in the fatal beating of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia.

Nuñez's father, Thomas Ferguson, was accused of beating and torturing the boy, the son of Ferguson's girlfriend, to death in 2017, but Ferguson took his own life in jail in 2018 before standing trial.

Prosecutors subsequently switched their focus to Nuñez, asserting he was a willing accomplice in his father's brutal torture of the boy and the burial of Jeremiah's broken body in a plastic tub alongside a state road near the family's home in Nambé.

According to police reports, the boy had been tortured before his death, made to wear adult diapers and kept for days in a dog kennel — which Nuñez is accused of having violently flipped, causing Jeremiah's death.

Nuñez pleaded guilty in 2020 to child abuse and tampering with evidence for his role in the crime, and he faces up to 24 years in prison.

His defense attorneys argue Nuñez was so traumatized by his own abuse at Ferguson's hands, he lacked the capacity to resist his father's prompt to participate in Jeremiah's abuse or to reach out to authorities for help.

They say he should not receive a harsher sentence than Jeremiah's own mother, Tracy Ann Peña, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to one count of child abuse resulting in death and three counts of conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine in the case. She received a 12-year prison sentence.

California-based child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Rowe — a defense witness — testified Nuñez had post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder brought on by an abusive and neglectful childhood that included having been in state custody between the ages of 6 and 9, which stunted his cognitive abilities and made it impossible for him to stand up to his father.

"All this neurological development happens in the first six years of life," Rowe said. "If you don't live in a good home ... it goes sideways ... and you end up with problems with self-regulation."

He added Nuñez and his four siblings had the kind of childhood that leads to "complex trauma" later in life.

According to testimony presented in court, Ferguson punched Nuñez in the stomach when he was just an infant, rubbed his face in dog feces and abused his mother in front of him.

" 'People who love me also hurt me' was a big theme in his life," Rowe said.

Nuñez received extensive counseling in his early life, as evidenced by records from the child welfare system in Texas, where he lived for a time with his grandparents and four siblings.

But Rowe said the treatment was spotty, disjointed and focused only on behavior modification — not repairing the damage that had already been done to his psyche.

Nuñez, who is 23 now but was 19 at the time of Jeremiah's death, lived in 11 different homes in his first 11 year of life, Rowe said.

Prosecution witness Dr. David Salsberg, a clinical pediatric neuropsychologist from New York, disputed Rowe's diagnosis of PTSD and the extent to which Nunez's childhood prevented him opposing his father or getting help for Jeremiah.

Salsberg said his evaluation of Nuñez was limited by not being allowed to administer certain tests related to personality disorders and psychopathology, but he said he didn't agree Nuñez has PTSD because he doesn't meet the criteria for the diagnosis.

Salsberg said that while Nuñez reported some "flashbacks" of his childhood abuse, he didn't claim to have experienced persistent and intrusive thoughts of the abuse.

Nuñez also didn't exhibit "avoidance" of the people or places at the root of his supposed trauma, Salsberg said, adding he voluntarily chose to leave his grandparents' home in Texas at 18 to reunite with his father in New Mexico.

Even if Nuñez did have PTSD, Salsberg said, he also had enough protective factors — such has having strong relationships with his younger sisters — to assume he was not wholly controlled by what had happened in his past.

Prosecutors also highlighted times when Nuñez had reportedly argued or defied his father in the past.

"I see enough periods of time where PTSD wasn't driving every aspect of his behavior and wasn't stopping him from doing anything," Salsberg said. "He was a young adult; he was 18. He had access to leave, he had access to a phone, he had stood up to [Ferguson] before."

Salsberg said Nuñez could even have been better equipped to have sought help for Jeremiah than his own mother.

"Certainly, he was in a state, from my professional opinion, to have the capacity to do more than a currently abused woman strung out on heroin most of the time," Salsberg said, referring to Peña.

Jeremiah's father is expected to testify Friday.

Nunez's defense team has not said whether he will address the court before he is sentenced. If he decides he wants to speak, state District Judge Matthew Wilson said, "he will have the last word."


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