Zito guilty of killing officers

Jury deliberates 7 hours to convict Centreville man of 2 first-degree murders

Death sentence is possible

May 25, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - Francis Mario Zito was convicted of first-degree murder yesterday in the shooting deaths of two young police officers who were called last year for a routine complaint at a small Eastern Shore trailer park.

Jurors rejected Zito's insanity defense, finding him criminally responsible for the killings despite a well-documented history of mental illness that has dogged him since childhood and has kept him in mental hospitals for much of his adult life.

The eight-woman, four-man panel deliberated for more than seven hours over two days before finding the 43-year-old Pennsylvania native guilty of turning a 12-gauge shotgun on Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz and Officer Michael S. Nickerson as they tried to enter his trailer home in Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat.

Ten uniformed police and correctional officers provided security yesterday as the jury filed into the courtroom.

Zito, wearing the blue suit coat, white shirt, gray tie and orange shoes he wore throughout the nine-day trial, stood motionless and silent, facing jurors as guilty verdicts on 12 counts were read yesterday afternoon. He faces a possible death sentence, the first in Queen Anne's County in 40 years.

Many among more than 30 family, friends and colleagues of the slain men who gathered in the Wicomico County courtroom, where the trial was moved because of extensive publicity, gasped loudly at the verdicts despite a warning from Circuit Court Judge Donald C. Davis.

"This shows that Michael wasn't just killed, but that he was murdered in the first degree," Susan Nickerson later said of her youngest son. "I feel that Frank Zito was aware of what he did on that night. I have to say that I'm in favor of the death penalty, but that's out of my hands."

Schwenz and Nickerson died Feb. 13, 2001, in a barrage of six shotgun blasts as they stood in an enclosed porch and opened the interior door of Zito's trailer.

Maryland State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore, the only eyewitness to the shooting, was uninjured. It was his testimony that contradicted Zito's charge that the officers tried to enter the trailer with guns drawn when Zito shot them.

Yesterday, Skidmore, clearly elated, hugged family members of his fallen comrades. He declined to talk to reporters.

Schwenz, 28, was hit three times, once in the face, once in the abdomen and by a final shot fired at close range "execution style," according to prosecutors.

Nickerson, 24, who apparently turned in an attempt to get out of the porch, was hit above his shoulder blade by a shotgun slug that shattered upon impact and caused severe lung damage. He was declared dead at a Baltimore trauma center that night.

Zito frequently disrupted the trial with loud protests about police violations of his rights and his belief that investigators had stolen valuable manuscripts he kept on legal pads scattered throughout his cluttered trailer.

The trial included several days of testimony from psychiatric experts for both sides. Zito's lawyers called his lifelong history of schizophrenia - including more than two dozen stays in mental institutions since 1989 - evidence that he was not criminally responsible for the killings, Maryland's version of the insanity defense.

Yesterday, prosecutor David W. Gregory said the case demonstrated his contention that despite Zito's mental state, he made a conscious decision to open fire on the police officers after a 20-minute standoff.

"I'm elated the jury was able to look at this case and see that when you peel away the layers of his mental illness, you see that it was not a mental illness that killed those police officers," Gregory said.

Throughout the trial, defense attorneys reminded jurors that police never obtained a warrant to arrest Zito or to enter his home, which they did illegally when they broke into the trailer through a storm door to the enclosed porch where the two officers died.

As the three officers opened the interior door to the trailer with keys provided by Zito's mother, who owns the trailer park where they both lived, Zito fired six shotgun blasts from inside the trailer.

"The really tragic thing about this is that these police officers did not know they were throwing gasoline on a fire," said public defender Brian D. Shefferman. The officers' entry into Zito's trailer, he said, merely served to confirm Zito's paranoia that police were out to get him.

"This was really Mr. Zito's worst nightmare realized," Shefferman told jurors in his closing statement Thursday.

Gregory, on the other hand, told jurors to focus on Zito's anger and resentment at the officers, as well as the amount of time he had to consider his actions as he traded insults with the officers outside his trailer.

Just 20 minutes before the shooting, Zito left a rambling telephone message on the office answering machine of U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, complaining of police harassment.

"What amazes me is that through all this he never once expressed remorse," said Charles Schwenz, who clutched a button that bore his son's photograph. "In this case, I think life without parole is appropriate. If he gets the death penalty, he's gone and that's it. Life in prison would be more difficult."

Jurors will be back in court Wednesday for what is expected to be two days of testimony to determine Zito's sentence - death, life without parole or life in prison. If he receives a death sentence, Zito will be automatically granted an appeal.

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