SALISBURY - Embellished with vivid descriptions of the visions he saw and the voices he heard after killing two police officers last year, the testimony of an Eastern Shore man who has pleaded an insanity defense contradicted the sole eyewitness in the case - a Maryland state trooper who survived the confrontation.
In a surprise move yesterday, defense attorneys called Francis Mario Zito to the stand in a two-hour appearance in a Wicomico County courtroom, where the trial was moved because of extensive publicity. Zito, 43, acknowledged shooting the officers with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun as they attempted to enter his trailer home on the outskirts of Centreville, the Queen Anne's county seat.
"I was thinking whether I should reload, and, it sounds crazy, but I saw the Angel of Mercy and he said, `Don't reload,'" said Zito, calmly recounting his actions after the shootings. "I could see a witch in the painted window, but I realized it wasn't a witch, it was my mother."
Zito, who has frequently disrupted court proceedings since his arrest in the killings of Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz and Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson on Feb. 13, 2001, was composed through much of the questioning by defense attorney Brian D. Shefferman.
On Tuesday, Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore, who had entered an enclosed porch at Zito's home with Schwenz and Nickerson, testified that neither of the officers drew their service handguns as they opened the door to the trailer with a key that Zito's mother provided.
Yesterday, Zito, who said he never saw Skidmore, insisted that the two slain officers forced open his door with a tire iron and confronted him with guns drawn.
Dressed in an ill-fitting blue suit jacket he has worn through four days of the trial, Zito outlined an elaborate pattern of conspiracy and harassment he said was carried out against him by neighbors, the police and other officials in Centreville, where many residents knew him as "Crazy Frank."
"They sort of blackballed me all around town," Zito said. "I couldn't even get a library card. I couldn't wait to get out of town. I can't walk the street or go in a public building without getting arrested by the rookie cops they got on me."
Zito, who faces a possible death sentence, insisted yesterday that police provoked a confrontation, repeatedly demanding that he come out of his trailer to answer a complaint about excessively loud music filed by his neighbor, Douglas Larrimore, a heavy equipment operator who lived for two years in the trailer park owned by Zito's mother, Betty.
From the witness stand, Zito accused Larrimore of being involved in the killing of a convenience store clerk - a crime local police officials say they know nothing about. Zito also said that he feared his neighbor was plotting to kill him.
"I've got to have my music to be able to do my work," said Zito, who has never held a job and who describes himself as a songwriter, jingle writer, novelist and software developer. He has complained for years to authorities that his mail is tampered with and that royalty checks for material he has written for MGM and other movie studios have been stolen.
Yesterday, Zito testified that he began hiding his extensive writings, compiled on legal pads, in his trailer, preparing to leave Centreville to stay with his father in Delaware because of harassment by the police.
Zito said he was afraid police would beat him or kill him if he came out of his trailer. He said Schwenz had arrested him the summer before the shootings.
"I told him if he didn't have a warrant, they couldn't come in and I didn't have to come out," Zito said he warned police. "I was checking out the vibes, and they didn't just want me to come out. They were hostile."
Wicomico County Circuit Court Judge Donald C. Davis, who ruled in March that Zito is competent to stand trial, has also ruled that police illegally searched Zito's trailer.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zito has been committed to mental hospitals more than two dozen times since 1989, according to his mother's testimony.
When asked by prosecutor David W. Gregory during a 10-minute cross-examination if he had told investigators he had done something wrong, Zito expressed remorse for the killings.
"It was all wrong," Zito said. "When I seen a cop lying on my steps and he wasn't answering me, I knew it was the worst."