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D.C. shotgun shooter seeks 12-hour release from St. Elizabeths

James E. Swann Jr. is arrested in 1993. He was declared not guilty by reason of insanity after shootings that killed four people.
James E. Swann Jr. is arrested in 1993. He was declared not guilty by reason of insanity after shootings that killed four people.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:41 PM

The shotgun stalker who terrified the District during shootings that left four people dead and five injured in 1993 appeared in court Tuesday for the first time in more than a decade, requesting a one-time, 12-hour release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, the psychiatric facility where he has been since the shootings.

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James E. Swann Jr. and his attorneys asked that he be able to spend time with his father. In 1994, Swann was declared not guilty by reason of insanity after psychiatrists said he was driven by disembodied voices that only he could hear.

At the hearing Tuesday, Swann's attorneys, Kimberly Clark and Silvana Naguib, said their client "no longer suffers from the delusional problems" that included paranoid schizophrenia. They said Swann "was not the same person he was in 1993."

For nearly eight weeks beginning in February 1993, Swann wreaked havoc on the Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. On 14 occasions, he drove there from his home in Philadelphia and shot at random people, pointing a shotgun out the driver's-side window of his car.

At the time of his arrest, in a videotaped interview with a psychiatrist, Swann said he heard voices that commanded him to shoot people in those neighborhoods to avenge the murder of Malcolm X.

At the hearing Tuesday, defense witnesses described Swann, 46, as well controlled. They said that he earned his associate's degree by taking computer classes at the hospital and that he plans to pursue a bachelor's degree.

James E. Swann Sr. testified that he lives in Concord, N.C., and drives about six hours to visit his son. The elder Swann, a retired Navy enlistee and Treasury Department worker, said he barely recognizes his son, who gave one-word responses during their 30-minute meetings when he was first arrested. Now, Swann said, he and his son talk about school and other "things parents talk about."

Swann said that if his son is granted the visit, he hopes to go "fishing, crabbing, bowling" with him. He said he would be responsible for "supervising" his son. "He doesn't disobey me," he said.

During testimony, the younger Swann often whispered in his attorneys' ears. When his father testified, he wiped away tears.

Prosecutors and St. Elizabeth's officials have objected to the release. Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Kennedy said Swann is calculating and manipulative and has failed to show remorse.

"We know what happens to Mr. Swann when he becomes violent. And the city has seen the worst of it," Kennedy said.

She said Swann was housed in the maximum-security unit at St. Elizabeths from 1994 until July, when he was moved to medium security. He is allowed outside the hospital building but must remain on the grounds and under supervision.

Daniel Murrie, director of psychology at the University of Virginia, said in court that he reviewed Swann's medical history. Swann has not had a violent episode at the hospital since 2003, and his aggression with his psychosis was gone, Murrie said. He testified that Swann has a "low risk" of violence.

Three years ago, Swann was seen "chirping" at birds outside the hospital. Murrie said the episode was not a sign that Swann was delusional but that he was having hallucinations.

Kennedy mentioned other examples that she said show Swann is not ready to be released. She said that Swann recently wore a T-shirt, bought by his father, that read "Thrill to Kill" and that he bragged to other patients that D.C. officials called him the "shotgun stalker."

Kennedy said Swann had spoken to film producers about making a movie of his life. He was also disciplined for trying to start a T-shirt business from the hospital and had business cards printed with the hospital's address and phone number.

Hearings are scheduled to continue Wednesday.

Superior Court Judge Fred B. Ugast said he wanted to hear more testimony before issuing a ruling. "The court wants to hear from anybody else that can help the court make a decision in a case that's very serious both to the community and to the individual defendant," the judge said.


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