Shotgun stalker ruled insane, not guilty

By Paul Duggan
Tuesday, September 27, 1994

James E. Swann Jr., the shotgun stalker who terrorized two Washington neighborhoods last year, was declared not guilty by reason of insanity yesterday in 14 attacks -- including four slayings -- after psychiatrists told a judge that Swann was driven to shoot people by screaming, disembodied voices only he could hear.

Forensic psychiatrists retained by the defense and by the prosecutors agreed in a D.C. Superior Court hearing that Swann was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the 1993 attacks. The shootings began Feb. 23 and ended with Swann's arrest on April 19.

Under District law, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered Swann, 30, confined indefinitely in St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility. Swann is entitled to a hearing once every six months at which he can ask Kollar-Kotelly to release him. He would have to convince the judge that his mental health had improved and that he was no longer a danger to the public.

In a videotaped interview with one psychiatrist, Swann said he would "hear these voices, and I wouldn't know where they were coming from, and they would command me to hurt people, to kill people." On the tape, which was played in court yesterday, he said the voices commanded him to shoot people in Northwest Washington "in the name of" Malcolm X, a slain black nationalist leader.

Swann, in a rambling, convoluted response to a question, told psychiatrist Park Dietz that Malcolm X existed as an "evil spirit" and wanted people killed in Northwest Washington because he believed them to be responsible for his 1965 assassination in New York.

When the voices in his head conveyed Malcolm X's desire that he shoot people, Swann said, he could not resist. The voices screamed -- "the chastisements," Swann called it -- and would let up for only one or two days at a time after he had shot someone. "They would just keep chastising me and chastising me," he said, until "it felt like my head was going to explode."

Swann, who is black, chose his victims without regard to their race or sex. In 13 of the 14 attacks, he was in a car, and he either shot at or threatened to shoot pedestrians walking alone. Most of the attacks were at night, and nearly all occurred in a 10-block radius in the Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods.

The eight-week series of attacks began about 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 23 when Swann pointed a shotgun out the driver-side window of a small car and fired at, but missed, a woman walking on Holmead Place NW. About 15 minutes later in a similar attack, a 22-year-old man was shot in the face and left partially blind in the 1400 block of Oak Street NW.

As the attacks continued and D.C. police recognized a pattern, one of the biggest investigations in the department's history got underway. Squads of detectives sifted and sifted again for clues at the shooting scenes, while scores of patrol officers, in uniform and street clothes, prowled Colombia Heights and Mount Pleasant round-the-clock, waiting for the stalker to make a mistake. Police urged residents to stay indoors after dark and, mostly, they complied.

Swann was stopped by an off-duty police sergeant and arrested April 19, minutes after 61-year-old Nello Hughes, the last victim, was slain in a daylight drive-by shooting in the 3600 block of 13th Street NW.

Besides the four people slain, five were seriously wounded.

The second killing occurred on March 23, in the sixth attack, when Elizabeth "Bessie" Hutson, 28, was shot while walking her dogs in alley between 19th Street and Park Road NW. Her father, Thomas R. Hutson, a political and economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Barbados, sat in the courtroom's first row at yesterday's hearing.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 1994 The Washington Post Company