An Eastern Shore jury's decision to sentence to death a mentally ill man who admitted killing two police officers sets the stage, some predict, for a debate over both capital punishment and a state mental health system that critics say has collapsed.
Public defenders who will work to block the execution of Francis Mario Zito, 43, wondered yesterday how jurors could have ignored his well-documented history of schizophrenia, which dates back to his childhood.
"A lot of mental health issues raised in this case ought to be of concern to people on both sides of the death penalty," said Katy C. O'Donnell, chief of the state's capital defense division.
"In this case, it's as if his mental impairment means nothing," O'Donnell said.
"Both [defense lawyers and prosecutors] conceded the magnitude of his mental illness, but jurors looked at the severity of the crime, the brutality of the crime."
Meanwhile, mental health advocates - who differ sharply on how to deal with such severe cases as Zito's - agree that changes in the state's system might have prevented the fatal shootings of Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz and Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson on Feb. 13, 2001.
Zito, who has been committed 25 to 30 times to mental institutions since 1989, for stays of a few days to a few months, turned a 12-gauge shotgun on Schwenz and Nickerson as they stood in an enclosed porch and tried to enter his trailer home in Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat.
The officers were answering a complaint from one of Zito's neighbors about loud music.
Jurors in Salisbury, where the case was moved because of pre-trial publicity, rejected Zito's plea that he was not criminally responsible, Maryland's version of an insanity defense, and sentenced him to death on two counts of first-degree murder, making him the 14th inmate on Maryland's death row.
The families of the slain officers are already lobbying for better training for police in dealing with mentally ill people.
Mental health advocates clashed this spring in the General Assembly over legislation that would have made it easier to force severely mentally ill patients to take anti-psychotic medication - medicine like the pills Zito routinely skipped when he was released from mental hospitals.
"Frank Zito should have been required to accept treatment - if he refused, he should have been court-ordered," said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, which favors "outpatient commitment" in severe cases.
"We think this is the kind of thing that happens when you wait until someone is considered dangerous enough to be committed," Zdanowicz said.
"This is a tragedy that could have been avoided."
The legislation that died in committee was also backed by the Maryland office of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Barbara Bellack, the organization's executive director, said the Zito case points out the urgency of the problem.
"We're always accused of using sensational cases, but the fact is that this isn't that unusual," said Bellack. "Our state does a terrible job, but it's no better nationally."
Other mental health advocates, such as those at the 30-year-old Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, insist that headline-grab- bing cases are no reason to turn the focus away from increasing outpatient treatment for nonviolent patients.
"In the Zito case, he clearly seems to meet the criteria for inpatient commitment in any state, but you can't then turn around and release him in a few weeks," Bellack said. "We have a system that's completely broken down."
Opponents of capital punishment don't expect the Zito case to have a direct impact on a four-month University of Maryland study ordered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who declared a one-year moratorium on the death penalty three weeks ago.
The study, due in September, will look at racial and geographic disparities in how the death penalty is administered in the state.
Still, Public Defender Patricia Chappell, who represented Zito, thinks the case could force attention on what she said is a "high correlation between failed insanity defense and death penalty sentences."
"I think there will be some looking at cases involving mental illness," Chappell said.
"But in this case, on some level, we were not able to convey to the jury the way Zito really is, how horribly disabled he is. The jury didn't get that."