Slain officers' mothers tell of loss

Shore jury considering killer's sentence is moved to tears

May 30, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- The mothers of two slain police officers brought many in a crowded courtroom here to tears yesterday, describing what they said were incalculable losses suffered by the families of the young lawmen who were gunned down last year while answering a routine complaint at an Eastern Shore trailer park.

Later, the mother of Francis Mario Zito, the man who was convicted Friday of murdering Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson and Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz, pleaded with the jury to spare Zito the death penalty, as he sat stoically, occasionally rocking gently in his chair or muttering to his lawyers.

In a nine-day trial in Wicomico County, where the case was moved because of extensive publicity, the eight-woman, four-man jury rejected Zito's argument that he was not criminally responsible, Maryland's version of the insanity defense.

Now, they must decide whether the 43-year-old Pennsylvania native will be executed, or receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole or a life sentence with a slim possibility of parole after 25 years.

Susan Nickerson said her 24-year-old son enthusiastically followed one of his older brothers into police work.

The youngest of her three sons, Michael had worked 19 days on the small force in Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat, when he was killed Feb. 13, 2001.

"My life and the lives of my family will never move beyond those moments," Nickerson said, describing the phone call in which she learned her son had been shot in the back.

"This is the hardest, hardest, hardest thing I've ever had to do," she said between sobs. "No birthday, no holiday, no family gathering will ever be the same."

Schwenz's mother, Connie Kirby, was selected to deliver her family's victim-impact statement.

Jury members wept and shared a box of tissues as Kirby told of a premonition -- about six months before the incident -- that she would bury one of her children. Jason Schwenz, 28, was hit with three shotgun blasts fired by Zito.

Her son, Kirby said, had never wavered since age 7 in his desire to become a police officer.

"From the first moment you hold a baby, feel his heartbeat and his breath on your neck, there is a special bond -- you want to protect him from everything, but you can't," Kirby said. "He was killed answering a routine noise complaint, and all that's left is a gaping hole in my heart."

Zito, who has a well-documented history of severe mental illness dating to grade school, admitted turning a 12-gauge shotgun on Schwenz and Nickerson as they and Maryland State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore, who was not injured, tried to enter his trailer.

The three men were standing in an enclosed porch, which they entered illegally, when Zito opened fire through the trailer's door.

Yesterday, Zito's attorneys brought two psychiatric nurses to the witness stand who reiterated trial testimony offered by psychiatric experts that Zito suffers from a form of schizophrenia.

According to medical records and court testimony, Zito has been admitted to mental hospitals 25 to 30 times, beginning in 1989.

Pamela Taylor, a psychiatric social worker from Silver Spring hired to evaluate Zito, told a chilling story of abuse suffered by Zito and his two older sisters as they grew up in a household in suburban Philadelphia headed by their father, Pascal, who now lives in Delaware.

According to Taylor, Zito was once stripped naked, tied to attic rafters and beaten with a whip by his father as his sisters were forced to watch.

"Frank is a crippled person," Taylor said. "As a child, he was always described as hungry for love, a lost soul."

Zito's mother, who suffered a stroke last year and uses a wheelchair, needed help yesterday in holding up her right hand as she was sworn in to testify.

According to Betty Zito, who rented her son a trailer in the small park where she lives, Zito was always an attentive son "when he was himself."

She described futile attempts to seek psychiatric help for her son, beginning when he was in second grade.

Over the years, Betty Zito said, she and her son became estranged from other members of the family who were embarrassed by his bizarre behavior.

"His sisters don't come near him; they don't come around when he's with me," Betty Zito said, crying. "I'd rather Frank be with me all the time because Frank needed me more."

"I know this is hard on the other people," she said, "but it's hard on me, too."

No further testimony is scheduled, and jurors are expected to begin deliberating on Zito's sentence today, after closing statements by defense attorneys and prosecutors.

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