Kentucky man pleads guilty but mentally ill to 2018 murder of ex-girlfriend

Published 6:35 am Saturday, September 25, 2021

Roughly 37 months after Margaret “Meg” Smith was murdered in her Meadow Glen home, Derek Garten, the Franklin County man charged in her 2018 shooting death, has entered a guilty but mentally ill plea to the three charges against him.

On Aug. 6, 2021 — approximately three weeks after The State Journal published a story about the case — Garten, 41, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder, a capital offense; tampering with physical evidence, a Class D felony; and violation of Kentucky EPO/DVO (Emergency Protective Order/Domestic Violence Order), a Class A misdemeanor.

“A guilty but mentally ill conviction serves as an in-between classification whereby a defendant bears legal responsibility for his criminal acts, but is provided treatment while incarcerated,” Franklin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland explained.

Garten “appeared to have an underlying pre-existing condition of paranoid schizophrenia worsened by methamphetamine use,” the prosecutor told The State Journal earlier this week.

Franklin Circuit Court records indicate the Commonwealth extended the plea offer to Garten on June 9.

Cleveland said he expected that the Commonwealth would have been able to prove Garten was guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt at trial as required and that the defendant would only have to prove himself mentally ill at the time of the commission of the offenses by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence.

The commonwealth’s attorney noted that a Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center mental health professional was prepared to testify that Garten was criminally responsible for Smith’s murder.

However, that same doctor also issued a report to the Owen Circuit Court in regards to a burglary Garten allegedly committed on July 4, 2018 — the day after Smith was murdered. That report concluded Garten “was not criminally responsible with respect to those offenses one day later.”

The verdict does not replace the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, but is rather an additional choice.

A defendant who pleads guilty but mentally ill is sentenced in the same way as if they were found guilty. It is up to the court to determine whether and to what extent mental illness treatment is required.

Treatment will continue until a health official determines it to be complete or until the defendant has served his sentence — whichever comes first.

In not guilty by reason of insanity cases the defendant is released from psychiatric commitment once he is deemed to no longer be dangerous to himself or others.

In a recent Louisville case, a guilty but mentally ill plea was entered by Gregory Bush, who killed two Black people at Kroger in Jeffersontown on Oct. 24, 2018, to state charges of murder, attempted murder and wanton endangerment.

In December 2020, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he admitted shooting Maurice Stallard, who was shopping for school supplies for his grandson in the store, and Vickie Jones, who was shot several times in the head and body and bled to death in the parking lot.

Bush pleaded guilty to federal hate crime and firearm charges from the racially-motivated shootings of the two Black shoppers in March.

The murder

Smith, 39, was an ex-girlfriend of Garten’s and, according to court documents, claimed he had a history of physical, verbal and mental abuse when she took out an emergency protective order (EPO) against him in early December 2017.

“He’s threatened to make my life a living hell — that an EPO is just a piece of paper and he knows people and one day he will get me,” she wrote in the EPO, saying in the past few days Garten had punched her in the stomach, spit on her and threw drinks on her.

Smith, who was employed by the state as a workforce development specialist, was found dead by what an autopsy later determined to be a single gunshot wound to back of her head in her West Frankfort home in the early morning hours of July 3, 2018.

On the day before she was killed, Smith contacted authorities after Garten posted threatening messages to her on social media. She said she was concerned that he would harm her before action could be taken in court.

“Derek posted on social media that my son raped and beat his son. I feel that my son and I could be in danger due to retaliation on Derek’s part due to these allegations,” she wrote in the complaint.

“My only concerns are the accusations against my son. I need to protect him from this.”

Finding Garten

Around 6 p.m. on the day of Smith’s murder, Garten’s black 1997 Toyota 4Runner was located at a trailer on Adams Lane, but he had reportedly fled in a silver Suzuki with Billy Jo Turner. A woman at the residence told investigators the pair left before sunrise.

When Turner was found less than hour later, he allegedly admitted driving Garten to Smith’s home and was “at the house when Garten shot her.”

Billy Jo Turner, 38, looks over the plea agreement on Aug, 14, 2019, before pleading guilty to criminal facilitation of murder, a Class D felony. He played a role in the July 3, 2018 shooting death of 39-year-old Margaret Smith. The father of Smith’s child, 39-year-old Derek Garten faces a capital felony charge of murder for her death, and Turner agreed to testify in any future proceedings against Garten. (State Journal file photo)

Court documents indicate that Turner parked the vehicle in Smith’s driveway at 5:15 a.m. and Garten got out with an assault rifle and entered the house from a rear gate. Turner said he heard a female scream then Garten ran to the car at around 5:21 a.m. and yelled, “Go, go. She’s dead.”

Turner told authorities that after the murder the pair went to the Adams Lane residence and Garten changed his clothes. He also reported that Garten “threw the rifle in the river” off Old Lawrenceburg Road and that he dropped Garten off on East Main Street.

In the plea agreement signed by Garten he admits to entering Smith’s residence and killing her while an active EPO was in effect.

“The defendant thereafter concealed the firearm used to kill the victim to prevent it being available as evidence in a trial,” the guilty plea reads. “The defendant was mentally ill when he committed these offenses.”

For his part in the crime, Turner pleaded guilty to amended charges of criminal facilitation of murder, a Class D felony; criminal facilitation of tampering with physical evidence, a Class A misdemeanor; and criminal facilitation of violation of Kentucky EPO/DVO, a Class B misdemeanor. Per his plea agreement he would have had to testify against Garten had the case gone to trial.

Turner served 13 months of the five-year sentence, which made him parole eligible. Per the conditions of his release, he was to live with family, remain employed full time and wear an ankle-monitoring device.

The Owenton News Herald reported that on July 4, 2018, and while evading police, Garten burglarized an Owen County home and stole collectible coins, pocket knives, two revolvers, a case of .22-caliber bullets and a lawnmower.

Two days later with various law enforcement agencies closing in on the Bryan Station Inn in Lexington where Garten was holed up, he posted a message on Facebook admitting responsibility for Smith’s death.

“This is the end of (the) road for me today … I was set up from the beginning. I shot Meg and would do it again. She was evil,” he wrote. “She was hurting my son. She abused the position she was trusted with and she hurt my son so many times I sent her back to hell where she needs to stay.”

A former Western Hills classmate of Garten’s, then-Franklin County Sheriff-elect Chris Quire was able to talk him out of the motel ending an hours-long standoff without incident. Garten was armed with the two guns that were later matched to the burglary at the residence in Owen County.

Court proceedings

Prior to entering his guilty plea, Garten was deemed mentally competent to stand trial after a Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center forensic psychiatrist performed evaluations.

During an evidentiary hearing on April 21, Dr. Daniel Hackman testified “with reasonable medical certainty” that Garten, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, possibly due in part to methamphetamine use, is mentally capable to understand the severity of the charges against him and how the legal system operates.

“The diagnosis of schizophrenia is based on Mr. Garten’s history of hallucinations, delusional beliefs and negative symptoms (e.g. restricted range of emotional expression, decreased motivation, poor hygiene, decreased speech),” Hackman said.

However, as Cleveland pointed out, Hackman also testified that while Garten was competent to stand trial, he was “not criminally responsible for the charges in Owen County that are substantially related to the Frankfort charges.

Cleveland said that as part of his guilty but mentally ill plea, Garten will receive mental health treatment while incarcerated until a professional determines it is no longer necessary or the expiration of his sentence — whichever comes first.

“Because Garten has been convicted of murder, a violent offense, he is not eligible for release on parole until he has served 85% of the sentence imposed,” the commonwealth’s attorney stated, adding the court is now waiting on a supplemental report from Hackman at the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center with respect to Garten’s current mental health condition for consideration by the court in sentencing and a pre-sentence investigation report from the Division of Probation and Parole.

The commonwealth has recommended a 30-year sentence — 30 for murder; five years for tampering with physical evidence; and 12 months for violating a Kentucky EPO — to be served concurrently. Garten’s sentencing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 during Franklin Circuit Court motion hour.

Garten is currently incarcerated in the Scott County Detention Center in Georgetown.