Doctor testifies on Zito's history

Suspect in officers' deaths has `chronic delusions,' psychiatrist tells jurors

May 21, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- A psychiatrist who evaluated Francis M. Zito, an Eastern Shore man accused of killing two law enforcement officers last year, told jurors yesterday that Zito's doctors apparently missed two key opportunities that might have prevented the shootings.

According to Dr. Joanna Brandt, a forensic psychiatrist hired by Zito's attorneys, Zito told doctors at Crownsville Hospital Center in March 2000 -- nearly a year before the lawmen were killed -- that he owned a gun.

"Tragically, it was noted in these records that he owned a shotgun," Brandt said in a Wicomico County courtroom, where the trial was moved because of extensive publicity.

Brandt said there was no indication in the files that local police, probation officials or health officers were notified about the weapon, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun that Zito admits he used to kill Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson and sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz as they tried to enter his trailer home in Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat, on Feb. 13, 2001.

Zito, 43, has pleaded not criminally responsible, which is Maryland's version of an insanity defense. If convicted and found criminally responsible, he faces a possible death sentence.

Brandt, who evaluated Zito within hours of the shootings, also combed psychiatric records detailing treatment that Zito has received during the nearly 30 times he has been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals since 1989.

On Jan. 27, 2001, about three weeks before the shootings, Brandt said, Zito was released from the psychiatric unit at Dorchester General Hospital in Cambridge after he had been held in isolation at the facility for three days.

"In a move I have difficulty explaining, he was released," said Brandt, who told jurors that keeping Zito in seclusion at the hospital indicated that he was thought to be dangerous. "Instead of transferring him to a facility that could handle him, he was released to the community," she said. "I can't think of a reason why."

Brandt, who found that Zito meets the legal definition of not criminally responsible, said Zito appeared psychotic and delusional during her first interview with him at the Queen Anne's County Detention Center.

According to Brandt, who echoed the testimony of other defense witnesses, Zito is convinced he is the target of a conspiracy that involves the police, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and his mother, Betty Zito, who owned the trailer park where they both lived. Zito, who does not believe he has a mental illness and frequently refuses medication, believes there is a plot to steal money he has earned for song lyrics and other material, Brandt and other witnesses have testified.

During one interview, Brandt said, Zito told her that his brother is actor Jack Nicholson and that actress Elizabeth Taylor killed his son, although authorities say he never had a son.

"This man has very chronic delusions," said Brandt under questioning from prosecutor Christopher F. Drummond. "The police have figured prominently in his delusions for many years.

Zito, whose history of mental illness dates to the third grade, grew increasingly belligerent yesterday during Brandt's two-hour testimony, prompting Circuit Court Judge Donald C. Davis to call a half-hour recess. "I want a fair trial, not just to be shoved in a nut house," Zito said loudly.

Later, Zito berated his public defenders, Patricia Chappell and Brian D. Shefferman, for failing to get authorities to return numerous writing tablets that were confiscated from his home. "I've got 1,500 pages that are lost," he said as his lawyers tried to keep him quiet.

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