Trial testimony turns to Zito's mental state

Witnesses differ on man's stability at time he killed 2 officers at trailer park

May 22, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Psychiatric experts and other witnesses presented radically different portraits yesterday of Francis Mario Zito, an Eastern Shore man accused of killing two lawmen last year in a Queen Anne's County trailer park.

Defense attorneys rested their case with testimony from a retired psychiatric nurse who befriended Zito nearly 20 years ago in his native Pennsylvania and yesterday described him as incoherent. A neurologist hired by Zito's public defenders told jurors in the Wicomico County courtroom, where the case was moved because of pretrial publicity, that he believes Zito's lifelong history of severe mental illness has been worsened by brain damage that is either genetic or was suffered before he was born.

Prosecutors countered with their own specialists and others who agreed that Zito suffers from a type of schizophrenia, but said he is a manipulative, willful patient who has learned to work the mental health system to his own advantage.

Zito has pleaded not criminally responsible (Maryland's version of an insanity defense), and has admitted shooting Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz and Officer Michael S. Nickerson on Feb. 13, 2001 as they tried to enter his trailer home in Centreville. If convicted and found criminally responsible, Zito could get the death penalty.

Yesterday, retired nurse Judith Kerneck said she first became friendly with the Zito family in the mid-1980s when he was a patient at two Pennsylvania psychiatric hospitals where she worked. She visited Zito and his mother, Betty, on Jan. 29 last year, about two weeks before the shootings.

Kerneck said Zito, who for years has maintained a delusion that Kerneck is the daughter of Pope John Paul II, talked and smoked constantly.

"I had never seen Frank so agitated and I use the word, tortured," Kerneck testified. "I'd never seen Frank so sick."

Called by the prosecution, Dr. Sharon Jones Warren, a psychiatrist who treated Zito for about a year before the two officers were killed, described Zito as calm and relatively restrained during a regularly scheduled counseling session just hours before he shot Schwenz and Nickerson with a 12-gauge shotgun as they answered a complaint about loud music.

"That day, he was neatly dressed, for him; he was calm, for him," Warren said. "He didn't mention any delusions. His speech focused on the here and now."

Prosecutor David W. Gregory also recalled to the stand Michael Jones, a civilian crime scene technician, who contradicted Zito's contention that the officers forced their way from an enclosed porch into his trailer by prying the front door open with a tire iron.

Maryland State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore, who was uninjured in the shooting, has testified that the officers attempted to enter the trailer with keys provided by Zito's mother, who owns the small trailer park.

Jones said yesterday that there were no signs of forced entry and a set of keys was in the lock.

Lawyers said jurors could begin deliberations late this afternoon or tomorrow.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.