As Execution Nears, Mental Illness at Issue
1999 The Washington Post Company
Friday, April 30, 1999; Page B1
WAVERLY, Va.óWith his execution set for May 12, Calvin Eugene Swann is obsessed about one thing: getting money for cigarettes.
"What's the date?" Swann asked a visitor, and when he got the answer, he quickly calculated, "I ain't got but 14 more days. So you gotta help me get some money into the canteen. Can't you send me $10 or $15?"
Swann's defenders say his preoccupation with money for cigarettes, rather than with the possibility that he has less than two weeks to live, is characteristic of the schizophrenia they say has kept him shuttling between mental hospitals and prisons most of his adult life.
Mental health and penal experts involved in the case say it raises unusually stark questions about whether the state of Virginia should be executing someone who has such a consistent and profound history of mental illness, a history with which the state had lengthy experience.
By the time of his murder conviction in 1993, Swann, now 44, had been confined in a dozen correctional institutions, and had made a dozen trips to Central State Hospital in Petersburg and seven more to Southwestern State Hospital in Marion.
"Swann is the antithesis of who the death penalty ought to be for," said Mark E. Olive, a Florida State University law professor who is co-counsel on Swann's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "He certainly is too crazy to be executed. He is a pitiful picture of humanity."
In opposing the appeal, Virginia notes there is no question that Swann murdered 62-year-old Conrad Richter after breaking into his Danville home. Swann's lawyer, the state points out, could have offered an insanity defense at his trial but chose not to. After the trial judge refused a request by Swann's public defender to appoint a psychiatrist to help him, the lawyer presented no defense.
The state also disputes the medical evidence for schizophrenia, a major mental disorder that distorts reality. "Although there is conflicting evidence whether Swann was ever schizophrenic, he was given medication for schizophrenia from 1981 through 1985," according to a summary of the case prepared by the office of Attorney General Mark L. Earley. And a state hospital psychiatrist "who examined Swann in 1989 and in April, 1992, concluded that Swann was not schizophrenic."
The U.S. Supreme Court could discuss Swann's case as early as today. Swann's new legal team contends in the appeal that he did not have adequate representation at the trial.
If the court declines to halt the execution, Swann's new lawyers plan to ask Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to grant clemency, something Gilmore hasn't done for any of the 21 other death-row inmates who have faced execution in the 15 months since he became governor. Since capital punishment was reinstituted in Virginia in 1976, five of 72 death sentences have been commuted.
"At another time in our recent history, public policy would have called for the continuing institutionalization of such a person," said Stanton E. Samenow, a clinical psychologist from Alexandria who testified in the sentencing phase of Swann's trial, after he was found guilty. "Nonetheless," Samenow said, Swann "again and again was released from psychiatric facilities only to have more difficulties."
Mark J. Mills, a psychiatrist who has testified over the years for both the prosecution and defense, wrote in an affidavit supporting Swann's appeal that "in the course of my practice, I have evaluated 3,500 individuals and supervised 10,000 evaluations [and] I have only ever seen one person I would classify as exhibiting a more devastating pathology than Calvin Swann."
During a 35-minute interview Monday in the death-row visitors room here at Sussex I State Prison, Swann sometimes talked jibberish and sometimes talked explicitly about the murder that put him there. He takes medication supplied by the state to control schizophrenia.
In between fidgeting, looking over his shoulder toward a guard, and pleading for money for cigarettes, candy and coffee, Swann recited numbers -- "get 8,6" and "1,2,3,4 transcript."
Asked why he is on death row, Swann recited matter-of-factly, "because I shot a man in the heart. I don't know how I did it." But then he remembered: "I told him it was a stickup, and this big white dude came charging at me."
Swann's victim, Richter, a widower who stood 6-3 and weighed 300 pounds, was sitting alone at his kitchen table eating a hamburger and french fries on the night of Nov. 7, 1992, when Swann, seeking money to buy cocaine, burst through the open front door and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at him.
"I'm little," noted Swann, a frail 5-6, 130 pounds, "so I had to shoot him" when Richter jumped up and charged him.
At Dan River High School, the 1973 yearbook listed him as a member of the chemistry, science and art clubs. Shown the senior class photograph of the serious young man in a suit, one of Swann's teachers recalled him only as "not someone who stood out" because of bad behavior.
His cousin, Ronnie White, said: "Calvin was a hard worker. He put in 14 hours a day, in a body shop during the day and at Hardee's at night."
But when Calvin was 19, his family and friends realized something was wrong.
Swann traces his troubles to the abuse of alcohol and drugs. But his family remembers differently, saying the craziness preceded his substance abuse.
"He'd come over here in the middle of summer and cut my grass wearing a big overcoat," said his aunt Bernice White. "And he started talking to the animals."
"He started writing down numbers. He put numbers on everything," added her son, Ronnie. "He'd cut out pictures of women and write '4 times 4' across their faces."
So on Feb. 5, 1974, Betty and Clyde Swann committed the oldest of their six children to Central State Hospital.
Swann was released after a few months, and in November of that year, he was charged with his first crime: the robbery of a fast-food store in Danville. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
It didn't take corrections department officials long to figure out that Swann wasn't normal. He was transferred from the Powhatan Correctional Center to Central State, where he spent most of the next eight years. He was denied parole four times and finally released on April 12, 1982, having served the maximum time permitted under the law.
Twice after that, Swann was charged with violent crimes: He hit a woman in the head with a brick during a home robbery and hit another woman with the butt of a gun during a purse-snatching. He served the maximum time, although before one of the convictions, he was found incompetent to stand trial on two occasions and ordered to hospitals.
On at least 31 occasions, according to state records, psychiatrists and psychologists who examined Swann agreed on a diagnosis: schizophrenia, with various accompanying disorders. An evaluation of his condition recorded July 19, 1980, at Southwestern, contained this warning from the staff: "Stabilize before injures someone, or perhaps even worse, commits a homicide."
Swann admitted killing Richter shortly after a Danville City detective told him that police were developing a "retinal image machine" that would produce a photograph of the last person seen by a dead man.
Swann believed the police would use the imaging machine as irrefutable proof of his guilt.
"It's kinda like DNA," Swann said.
The attorney general's office noted that one of Swann's own mental health experts "testified that if a person suffering from schizophrenia has not taken prescribed medicines for three months, that person usually shows symptoms of the illness. . . . Yet, although Swann had not taken medication for schizophrenia in the nine months before" being questioned about the murder, the detective who questioned him "saw none of the signs" described as evidence of schizophrenia.
Juries in Danville have ordered the death penalty for eight defendants, and all of them, like Swann, have been black, even though African Americans make up little more than one-third of the city's population of 55,000.
At Swann's trial, only three blacks were included in the original pool of 23 prospective jurors, and all of them were removed, two by the prosecution and one by the defense.
Danville's public defender, Lawrence D. Gott, told Circuit Court Judge James F. Ingram that Swann was unhappy about the all-white jury. Ingram ruled that the challenges used by Commonwealth's Attorney William H. Fuller III to remove two blacks were not racially motivated. Gott himself struck the third potential black juror.
Gott declined to discuss the case in a telephone interview this week.
"It serves no purpose to comment," Gott said, adding that "it was a long time ago" and that he didn't recall the details.
He also declined to say why Swann did not plead "not guilty by reason of insanity."
At the end of the prosecution's presentation, Gott rose, faced the judge and jury and announced: "After conferring with the defendant, the defense offers no evidence. We rest."
Clyde Swann Jr., an electronic technician in Lynchburg who attended his brother's trial every day, said: "Calvin was out of it at the trial. Even when the judge pronounced the death sentence, he was just looking around, unconcerned."
Despite his reputation as a hard-nosed prosecutor, Fuller said this week that if the current Virginia law that permits no parole had been in effect at the time of Swann's trial, "I probably would have gone for that option."
But because the law in 1993 might have permitted Swann's release in 25 years, Fuller said, "I couldn't take the chance that he'd be out on the street again."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company