Mentally ill man is sentenced to death for killing 2 officers

Jury rejects plea to spare Zito

emotion overwhelms victims' families, friends

May 31, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - Francis Mario Zito, a mentally ill man who admitted killing two police officers last year at an Eastern Shore trailer park, was condemned to die yesterday by the same jury that found him guilty of the shotgun slayings a week ago.

Jurors, who had rejected Zito's insanity defense in the first phase of the trial, again refused the impassioned pleas of defense attorney Patricia Chappell to spare Zito, who has suffered since childhood from a form of schizophrenia.

The panel of nine women and three men deliberated for more than six hours yesterday before deciding the 43-year-old Pennsylvania native should be executed for the first-degree murders of Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson, 24, and Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz, 28, on Feb. 13, 2001.

Zito showed no emotion as the sentence was read in the packed courtroom. He was also sentenced to life in prison for the attempted murder of a third officer.

Maryland has a moratorium for up to a year on the death penalty, imposed May 9 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in order for him to evaluate a study into racial and geographic disparities in how the sentence is administered.

Even so, after Zito's sentence was read, more than 30 family members, friends and colleagues of the slain officers broke into tears and embraced in the Wicomico County courtroom, where the case had been moved because of pretrial publicity.

"Both of these boys were too special for the jury to have come back with any other sentence," said Nickerson's mother, Susan, who was in attendance each day at the 11-day trial.

"I know it was a hard thing for this jury, but I think they are a good cross section of people who've said we have to respect officers who were doing their duty," she said.

Prosecutor David W. Gregory said he was not surprised by the sentence.

"I just don't think that these jurors, or any citizen for that matter, likes to see police officers murdered," Gregory said. "It think the sentence was as simple as that."

Zito, who had been defiant in his testimony during the trial, expressed remorse yesterday. Speaking before deliberations began, Zito stood facing the jury, at times mumbling and struggling to read handwritten notes he pulled from his jacket pocket. He asked for leniency.

"I didn't want or plan for this to happen," he said hesitantly. "I'm sorry for the police officers' loved ones. I'm sorry for my loved ones. I believe there should be a place where my life can be lived."

In his brief statement, Zito blamed police for the incident, saying that their entry into his trailer was a violation of his constitutional rights.

"Your rights are my rights," he said. "The police went against that, and that's what caused this incident to happen."

Schwenz, Nickerson and Maryland State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore answered a routine complaint about loud music at the trailer park where Zito lived in Centreville, the seat of Queen Anne's County.

The two officers were killed as they stood in Zito's enclosed porch and tried to enter his trailer through the front door. Skidmore, who was not injured in the shooting, contradicted Zito's testimony that police tried to enter his trailer with guns drawn.

Circuit Court Judge Donald C. Davis ruled last month that the officers' entry into the porch was illegal because they did not have a warrant to search the premises or arrest Zito, who had refused their demands that he come outside.

Yesterday, Skidmore choked back tears as he addressed the court before Zito was sentenced.

"These officers were doing their jobs," Skidmore said. "I can't express enough the pain and suffering he has caused."

Gregory, who called Zito's plea of insanity a "grab bag of excuses," reminded jurors several times during his final remarks that Zito had fired six shots from his 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

Nickerson was struck once in the back. Schwenz was hit in the face, the abdomen and the neck. The final shot to Schwenz, prosecutors said, was at close range, "execution style."

"The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst," Gregory told jurors. "If you look at the manner in which Michael Nickerson was shot in the back and Jason Schwenz was executed, I can't think of anything worse."

About five hours into deliberations, jurors asked to see an autopsy photo of Schwenz - which prosecutors said clearly showed the close-range wound that killed the officer. About a half-hour later, jurors reported that they were ready to pronounce their sentence.

Charles Schwenz, Jason Schwenz's father, said life in prison without the possibility of parole might have been preferable for some family members, who must endure what could be years of legal appeals.

In Maryland, a death sentence is automatically appealed to the state's highest court.

As he had several times in the nearly three-week trial, Zito interrupted Chappell's closing remarks to the jury, forcing a 20-minute recess after he began berating his lawyers for spending too much time explaining possible mitigating factors that jurors should consider before deciding his sentence.

"All this mitigation," Zito said. "They don't want to hear that. They want true or false, right or wrong."

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