Killers who are found to be insane still receive Social Security benefits

September 10, 1993|By Arizona Republic

WASHINGTON -- To Verna Adcock, it is the final indignity.

As she mourned the death of her 22-year-old daughter last year, Ms. Adcock, of Tempe, Ariz., learned that the killer, Curtis Donald McDonnell, was receiving monthly Social Security disability -- even though Congress outlawed Social Security benefits for felons in 1980.

Even more troubling to Ms. Adcock was the discovery that McDonnell, who witnesses said shouted racial epithets at the young black woman after he pulled the trigger, remains eligible for benefits even today, while he is confined at the Arizona State Hospital after being found incompetent to stand trial.

McDonnell's attorney, public defender Wes Peterson, said that "I would assume he still is" collecting payments from the program, in which benefits average $609 a month.

"I'm wondering how the system could allow this," Ms. Adcock said.

McDonnell is not the only person to receive Social Security after a headline-grabbing killing.

Michael Charles Hayes, who killed four people in a 1988 shooting spree in Forsyth County, N.C., receives benefits from the federal program because of a mental disability, according to his attorney.

Hayes, now in a state mental hospital, opened fire from a roadside near Winston-Salem, killing four people and wounding five others.

Hayes and McDonnell are permitted to collect Social Security because the rules say only that benefits should be denied to individuals who are imprisoned as the result of a felony conviction.

Hayes, who said during his trial that he was carrying out God's word by killing demons, was found innocent by reason of insanity. McDonnell was declared unable to understand court proceedings against him and, therefore, unfit to stand trial.

Attorneys for both men defend their clients' right to obtain benefits under the Social Security program, which is designed to supplement lost incomes for people with serious physical or mental impairments.

Social Security benefits for felons were barred by Congress after it was learned that New York's "Son of Sam" killer, David Berkowitz, was receiving more than $300 a month in disability aid.

Based partly on lobbying by R.B. Nicholson, father of one of Hayes' victims, a House Ways and Means subcommittee will soon begin considering a bill by Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., that would extend the ban to defendants who are acquitted by reason of insanity, such as Hayes. Mr. Jacobs said such defendants already receive shelter and food from their institutions, making their benefits extraneous.

As drafted, the bill contains no provision for blocking the benefits of those who are considered incompetent to face trial, such as McDonnell.

Officials at Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore now are trying to determine how many criminally insane defendants are on the benefit rolls. They declined to discuss the cases of McDonnell or Hayes.

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