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Derek Connell, accused of killing his mother and stepfather, hides his face as he stands next to Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman in court Tuesday.

A Bakersfield man accused of gunning down his mother and stepfather has been ordered to stand trial on two counts of first-degree murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Kern County Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Clark ruled there is enough evidence to support the charges against 29-year-old Derek Connell following a preliminary hearing that began Tuesday and stretched into Wednesday afternoon. 

Prosecutors say Connell shot Christopher Tare Higginbotham and Kim Higginbotham, both 48, on April 30. Connell at first claimed he found the couple dead in their northwest Bakersfield home, but later indicated he was responsible for their deaths.

Connell’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman, argued Wednesday there was no evidence of premeditation or malice on Connell’s part and he should not be tried on first-degree murder.

“He believes he did it, but he doesn’t know how,” Cadman said. 

He asked Clark to dismiss the charges and instead order Connell held for trial on charges of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. 

Prosecutor Art Norris said the degree of the offense is something a jury, not a judge, should decide. Clark weighed the evidence and determined Connell will be tried on the first-degree murder counts.

The judge found Connell’s statements showed “a fair amount” of thought and planning after the killings. Connell has said he used bleach in an effort to clean up blood pooled around the bodies. 

Cadman said afterward his client is upset he continues to face death.

“Derek is disappointed by the decision of the magistrate to continue this case as a death penalty case since the preliminary hearing showed clearly that he has no recollection of the events and certainly had no premeditation, deliberation, or malice aforethought regarding the incident,” Cadman said.

“His heroic yet frightening experiences serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he continued, “and the subsequent substance abuse problems that he was forced to deal with due to his horrific experiences remain directly responsible for the tragedy that has unfolded in this case.”

Connell gave investigators a rambling, lengthy interview during which officers said they could smell alcohol on him. In an interview conducted at a later date, Connell told police he had previously lied to them due to his level of intoxication.

During the second interview, played during Wednesday’s hearing, Connell told investigators he believed he had killed his mother and stepfather.

“I had to have done it,” he said. “There was no one else in the house.”

Connell said he spent the evening drinking heavily, then returned to his parents’ home in the 5000 block of Lily Pad Court. He began living with them after serving a nine-month jail sentence for a DUI in Colorado.

He told investigators he spoke with his stepfather briefly before going to bed. They didn’t argue, and he said he got along well with both his mother and stepfather. 

Connell said the next thing he recalled was finding their bodies. He cried as he described lying next to his mother’s body and telling her he was sorry.

Investigators pushed him for information as to what happened from the time he went to bed to discovering the bodies, but Connell said he couldn’t remember anything. 

Two shotguns, five handguns and seven rifles were seized from the home. Connell said the weapons belonged to his stepfather.

Connell served in the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2008, and was less than honorably discharged due to an incident involving alcohol, he said in court filings. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked in oil fields in Colorado and Texas.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 10. 

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