Officials Seek Clues to Weston's 'State of Mind'
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 29, 1998; Page A01
Investigators are trying to build a case that the assault on the U.S. Capitol was a premeditated criminal act by Russell Eugene Weston Jr. fueled by anti-government obsessions, even though he was once diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from irrational delusions, court documents and law enforcement sources indicated yesterday.
Legal experts said prosecutors will face thorny ethical and political problems as they decide what punishment to seek for Weston, a disturbed drifter accused of gunning down two U.S. Capitol Police officers, Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson, last Friday. As they search for insight into Weston's muddled mind, the experts predicted, the prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek the death penalty and whether to accept any deal that would confine him to a mental institution.
FBI affidavits unsealed yesterday suggested that, for now, investigators are seeking evidence of what one document called "planned activities." One affidavit said that in the weeks before the shootings at the Capitol, Weston had been preoccupied by a belief that the federal government planted mines on his Montana property. Another affidavit suggested Weston "may have used a camcorder to possibly videotape his plans to commit violence."
The search for what may have motivated Weston to make the 750-mile trip from Valmeyer, Ill., to Washington illustrates the unusual status of mental illness in the legal system, experts said. Weston, who underwent additional surgery yesterday at D.C. General Hospital, has not chosen a legal strategy with his court-appointed counsel. But even if he seeks an insanity plea, as is widely expected, his history of severe mental illness is no guarantee of success.
Weston once spent 52 days in a Montana state mental hospital and has received disability payments for his schizophrenia for 14 years. But a legal definition of insanity requires proof that the defendant did not know what he was doing was wrong.
"It's pretty clear that this guy is going to spend the rest of his life in confinement," said Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who runs the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. "But the Justice Department has some big decisions to make. He's obviously disordered. The question is whether he's too disordered to prosecute."
Yesterday's documents showed that investigators are searching for letters, maps, diaries, videotapes and other evidence that would shed light on Weston's mental condition before he stormed into the Capitol. They are hunting everywhere from his outhouse in Rimini, Mont., to a 1950 Jeep in Valmeyer, to the red Chevrolet pickup truck he drove to Washington. The documents paint a portrait of a man who was troubled -- "An overriding feature of Weston's daily life is his fear of the government," one affidavit said -- but not necessarily incapable of planning violence.
Law enforcement sources said a videotape that allegedly shows Weston shooting Chestnut in the back of the head at point-blank range may support premeditation as well. The documents also said Weston's parents told the FBI that a handgun and a shotgun were missing from their home after he left Valmeyer the night before the shooting, suggesting that Weston may have headed for Washington with mayhem on his mind.
"Sure, we're looking at [premeditation]," one law enforcement source said. "We're still gathering evidence that goes to his state of mind."
Justice Department officials said they have not even begun to consider the first decision they will have to make in Weston's case, which is whether to seek the death penalty. Attorney General Janet Reno and a department advisory panel will have to consider aggravating factors, such as the risk of harm to bystanders, as well as mitigating factors, such as the absence of a criminal record.
Weston's history of schizophrenia could also be an important mitigating factor, experts said, especially since Reno's decision to seek the death penalty for accused Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski became a bit of a debacle for the department. A decision to seek the death penalty would also escalate the cost of the prosecution and lead to a more adversarial process in deciding whether the defendant is competent to stand trial.
But these decisions are not made in a political vacuum. At a time of increasing public frustration over high-profile crimes, officials may be reluctant to seek anything less than the ultimate sanction for the accused killer of two nationally mourned police officers.
There was no serious outcry when the department reversed course by accepting a deal that sent Kaczynski to prison for life. But a spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police, Gerald Arenberg, said the Weston case will be closely watched.
"There are 700,000 police officers in this country, and almost all of them support the death penalty when their fellow officers are killed," Arenberg said. "And believe me, those officers and their families are going to make their feelings known to the politicians."
If Weston does try an insanity defense, the department will also have to decide whether to plow ahead with prosecution or consider a deal that would send Weston to a mental hospital. Despite Weston's well-known delusions, from his belief that he was cloned at birth to his fear that the CIA spies on him through satellite dishes, this will not be an obvious choice. After John Hinckley was found not guilty of shooting President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Congress changed the law to make insanity defenses harder to sustain in federal court.
"We've become a much harsher nation," said John Parry, director of the American Bar Association's commission on mental and physical disability laws. "We're much more skeptical about the reasons people commit crimes. We just want to throw the perpetrators in jail."
One problem, legal analysts said, is that juries often fear that if they find a defendant like Weston not guilty by reason of insanity, he might be back on the streets in no time.
In fact, he would have to show "clear and convincing evidence" that he posed no threat to society, a standard that experts say would be practically impossible in a case like this. Studies in the past have shown that violent defendants sent to mental hospitals generally spend even more time in confinement than violent defendants sent to prison.
"It's a complete misnomer that these guys walk free, but it does help the prosecution," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), a former district attorney whose office prosecuted John Salvi, the troubled New Hampshire man who killed two abortion clinic workers. Salvi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He later committed suicide in jail.
Delahunt said investigations of a deeply disturbed suspect usually focus on premeditation: "Hey, it's an adversarial system." But in the Salvi case, he said, the defendant's writings and other evidence of planning confirmed that the original focus was correct.
"We didn't argue that he was free from mental health issues," Delahunt recalled. "His conduct was bizarre, aberrational, at times almost inexplicable. But he was criminally responsible in the time he was planning and carrying out the attack. And we showed that."
So far, though, authorities have not publicly produced that kind of evidence for Weston. Documents unsealed yesterday described the first items recovered from the searches: a box of .38-caliber ammunition, a bag with pillows and other bedding items, a red carrying bag, a plastic bag with $2.50 in change, empty soda cans and bottles, an empty McDonald's bag, maps, a notebook, a notepad with the image of "Garfield" the cartoon cat and other personal papers found in Weston's truck. But the documents did not describe the content of the writings.
In fact, several experts said Weston appears to be a classic candidate for an insanity defense. He was once institutionalized and relatives have described his deterioration over the last decade. Several federal agencies were aware of his delusions.
The FBI affidavits also quoted Weston's parents and grandparents as saying he often wrote to government agencies over the last 20 years, acknowledging that the suspect's family believed the letters "contained largely irrational ideas, thoughts, plans, assertions and accusations."
Still, prosecutors hope to show that those plans and accusations reflect premeditation, not lunacy. One FBI affidavit pointed out that Weston was so concerned about land mines that he wrote a letter to a federal agency before moving to Illinois in June. The affidavit said that two weeks before his rampage, Weston received a response from the agency that frightened him more.
The documents said that Weston diligently maintained his letters, notes and other files in several cabinets in Valmeyer, painting a picture of a meticulous man on a secretive mission. "Weston was very secretive and organized with respect to these letters and was careful to not leave them scattered about," one affidavit said. "Weston consistently maintained the cabinets in a locked condition to prevent anyone from having access to them."
Investigators hope to show that Weston's feelings about the government had some kind of rational roots, and in that they may get help from witnesses like Myron Goss, his former mining partner in Montana. Goss said that Weston's obsession with the government began in 1988, after the U.S. Forest Service refused to allow him to remove ore from the abandoned Cousin Jenny Mine outside Sheridan, Mont.
"That sort of started getting Rusty" angry "at the government," Goss said. "He started talking about the government after that episode."
David Bruck, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said the problem with an insanity defense is that in theory, at least, even the most deranged of defendants can have moments of lucidity. And prosecutors tend to pursue that theory until they are persuaded otherwise.
"No matter what kind of delusions or other illnesses an individual may have suffered before or after the criminal act, the government still gets to try to show that at the moment of the crime he knew that what he was doing was wrong," Bruck said.
For Weston's parents, though, this is a clear-cut tragedy, a horrifying outburst by a mental patient who did not take his medications. Yesterday, they waited in vain for the District of Columbia police to call them to say they could visit their son.
The Westons' church and neighbors have offered to pay for plane tickets, but for now, the family is not allowed to speak to him. They just send messages through his doctor and his attorney, "to let him know that he is still loved by us."
"To be there all alone, that's got to be awfully hard," said Russell Weston Sr.
Washington Post special correspondent Mark Matthews in Helena, Mont., and staff writers Roberto Suro in Washington and Linda Perlstein in Valmeyer, Ill., contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company