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Souderton man to waive hearing in rape, murder of child

A Souderton man accused of raping and murdering a 9-year-old neighbor will waive a preliminary hearing next week, in part because of concerns for his safety, his attorney said Thursday.

A Souderton man accused of raping and murdering a 9-year-old neighbor will waive a preliminary hearing next week, in part because of concerns for his safety, his attorney said Thursday.

James Lee Troutman, 24, has been kept in a one-man cell since his arrest in the slaying of Skyler Kauffman last week. Though he has been treated well there, his lawyer, Craig Penglase, said he worried about exposing his client to a public setting so soon after a crime that drew such a visceral response from the community.

Troutman is expected to appear in court via videoconference Monday from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The district courtroom in which he was originally scheduled to appear is across the street from the scene of his purported crime.

"I understand that this is an emotional case that involves the death of a child, but when a mob mentality is started, people get hurt," Penglase said. "I just ask people to keep an open mind at this point."

Prosecutors allege that Troutman lured Skyler to the basement of the Souderton Gardens Apartments on May 9, raped and strangled her, and then wrapped her body in a comforter and buried it under garbage bags in a nearby trash bin.

According to court filings, he confessed to the crime shortly after his arrest, telling investigators he "snapped" and had to kill Skyler because "once [he] took her down to the basement [he] knew she could get [him] in trouble."

As authorities escorted Troutman into court for his arraignment the next day, residents of Souderton Gardens yelled obscenities and hurled insults such as, "Rot in hell." Police struggled to keep the crowd at bay.

"I just ask people to let the trial process run its course," Penglase said. "The reason that we don't do lynch mobs anymore is because a case has to be based on evidence and handled the right way."

Penglase said Thursday that he had met with his client several times since the Troutman family retained him earlier in the week. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek the death penalty, and Penglase said he was exploring a possible insanity defense.

Troutman had received "significant" mental-health treatment before his arrest, Penglase said, adding that he had not yet come across an official diagnosis.

Troutman's friends and his fiancée have described him as having Asperger's syndrome, an autismlike disorder characterized by difficulties in interacting in social situations. Alone, such a diagnosis would not meet the minimum legal standard to justify an insanity plea.

"He's a complicated guy," Penglase said. "He's never been in trouble before, so this is really wearing on him, as one would expect. I'm hopeful there are sufficient mitigating factors in his life to argue against the death penalty."

Penglase said he had yet to see an April 18 police report that has generated controversy in the case.

Three weeks before Skyler's death, her mother, Heather Gebhard, told police that Troutman had locked her daughter in his apartment, exposed her to photos of naked women, and offered to show her his "bird." She has blamed authorities for not doing more at the time, saying they could have prevented Skyler's death.

But the officers who responded that day found nothing overtly criminal had occurred. The girl asked to use Troutman's bathroom; she saw magazine photos of lingerie models his fiancée had posted on the walls; and Troutman - an avid birdhouse builder - had offered to show her his "pet bird," multiple investigators who declined to speak publicly have said.

In drafting the probable-cause affidavit for Troutman's arrest last week, detectives used Gebhard's depiction of events to describe the previous encounter, prompting some to question why authorities didn't step in earlier.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who plans to prosecute Troutman's case herself, has refused to release the original incident report or to discuss its contents.

But the differences between the two police accounts could provide a defense opening, Penglase said.

"It's a no-win situation for the government," he said. "If they lean on the story [from the arrest affidavit] too heavily, then it looks like they should have done something at the time. If they openly discredit it or try to say it was a nonissue, they can't try to use it against him at trial."