updated 02/04/2011 AT 6:00 AM ET
•originally published 02/04/2011 AT 6:45 AM ET
A judge on Thursday found Phillip Garrido mentally competent to stand trial for the 1991 abduction of Jaycee Dugard.
Although Garrido’s defense attorney Susan Gellman had earlier proposed a jury trial to resolve the question, Gellman softened her stance and allowed El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Douglas Phimister to rule on the issue after doctors who examined Garrido found him capable of understanding the proceedings and participating in his defense.
Phillip and Nancy Garrido are scheduled to return to court Feb. 28 to set a trial date and enter pleas to the 18 charges in an indictment that was handed down last year. The charges include kidnapping, kidnapping for sexual purposes, forcible rape and forcible lewd acts upon a child.
The Garridos allegedly abducted Dugard at age 11 from her South Lake Tahoe home and kept her as a sex slave.
However, defense attorneys, with Dugard’s consent, hope to avoid trial by negotiating a plea deal that would sentence their clients to something less harsh than life in prison. By sidestepping trial, Jaycee and her two teenage daughters by Garrido, who live in an undisclosed location, would be spared the pressure of testifying.
Nancy Garrido’s defense attorney Stephen Tapson tells PEOPLE that there have already been such talks, which have included a representative for Dugard, and Thursday’s ruling removed a key obstacle to resolving the matter.
Tapson says that a trial would likely happen later this year, but he cannot predict if or when a plea deal might be worked out.