Jury Convicts Man Of Beheading Aunt

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

An Arlington County jury convicted a man yesterday of strangling and decapitating his aunt, rejecting arguments posited by his attorneys that Matthew J. Pahno was insane at the time of the killing.

After deliberating nearly 14 hours over three days, the jury of three men and nine women agreed that Pahno, 22, was guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Maria "Marissa" Teresa Dela Cruz Escoto, 40. Then, after hearing testimony from Escoto's husband and brother, the jury sentenced Pahno to 30 years in prison -- far less than the life imprisonment he faced.

"I'm glad there was finally justice for Marissa," her husband, Nick Pahno, said outside the courtroom moments after the verdict was read. "She didn't deserve what happened to her."

Matthew Pahno is scheduled to be formally sentenced by a county judge in August.

Escoto was killed July 15 inside the North Arlington home she shared with her husband. According to prosecutors, her nephew beat her, then wrapped a belt around her neck. He choked her to death, dragged her body down a flight of stairs into the basement and severed her head with a hacksaw.

In a 911 call he made shortly after the killing, a recording of which was played for the jury, Pahno summed up the act: "I murdered a woman. I need to be picked up."

Pahno's grandmother, Joyce Mitchum, said yesterday that she was disappointed with the verdict.

"I think it's a horrible shame," she said, adding that her grandson is mentally ill and needs to be hospitalized, not locked in a prison cell. Pahno had lived with Mitchum until three days before the killing. Nick Pahno testified that plans had been made for his nephew to move in with him and Escoto last August.

During the four-day trial last week, the case against Pahno hinged almost exclusively on the theory that the killing was the act of an insane man. Defense attorney Denman A. Rucker told the jury that Pahno, who has a history of depression, committed the crime not with a "blind and malicious heart but with a deranged mind."

But prosecutors said Pahno snapped after Escoto caught him masturbating. The jury was told that he became embarrassed and then enraged and that a lifetime of pent-up aggression was released during the ensuing scuffle. In an interview with police, Pahno described, in part, how his aunt walked in on him.

The guilty verdict was "absolutely correct," said Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos. Sitting with Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Cari Steele, who also tried the case, she said they were "so glad for Marissa."

Mental health professionals who interviewed Pahno at the Arlington County jail and Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Va., where he was sent for treatment after he was initially found incompetent to stand trial, testified that Pahno suffers from severe depression and exhibits some psychotic features, such as paranoia.

Given time, they testified, the symptoms will probably lead to paranoid schizophrenia.

According to their testimony, Pahno believed he was defending himself when he killed his aunt. They testified that Pahno did not know right from wrong and was insane at the time of the killing.

But prosecutors told the jury that Pahno's confusion was an act. During interviews with clinical and forensic psychologist Stanton Samenow, Pahno's behavior contrasted sharply with what he displayed for police and the other mental health professionals. With them, he was hesitant and seemingly disoriented and took several minutes to answer questions. He told Samenow, author of several books on the criminal mind, that while talking to police, he thought "about what would happen to me and where I would end up."

Samenow said Pahno was lucid and forthcoming during their interviews, which spanned about 12 hours over two months. Relatives described Pahno to Samenow as an "extremely angry boy who kept everyone on edge," he testified.

Samenow diagnosed an antisocial personality disorder and depression but testified that Pahno knew what he was doing -- and was aware of the consequences -- when he killed his aunt that hot summer day last year.

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