Joseph M. Mesa Jr. was convicted yesterday of killing and robbing two classmates at Gallaudet University, murders that terrified the campus community at the acclaimed school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Jurors, rejecting Mesa's insanity defense, deliberated barely three hours before finding the former Gallaudet freshman guilty of premeditated murder and related robbery and burglary charges in the slayings of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner, both 19.
Plunkett, of Burnsville, Minn., was bludgeoned in September 2000, and Varner, of San Antonio, was stabbed in February 2001. The killings, four months apart in the same dormitory, shocked the campus in Northeast Washington -- particularly after another student was arrested in Plunkett's slaying, then released for lack of evidence.
Prosecutors, who say Mesa was motivated by greed, said they will ask that he be given life in prison without parole when D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter imposes sentence July 10. Ferris R. Bond, Mesa's attorney, said he will appeal.
Mesa, 22, sat expressionless in the courtroom, his hands folded in front of him, as the verdicts in the 15 counts against him were read and translated into sign language by an interpreter.
Family members of the victims cried and embraced each other and the prosecutors as Mesa was led out of the courtroom by deputy marshals. It was a bittersweet victory for relatives and friends who had sat in court as details of the killings were repeated in the 10-day trial.
"I'm still numb," said Diane Varner, Benjamin's mother. "A year and three months ago, I came here to pick up my son's body, and I've yet to get over that numbness. . . . There's little significance in the verdict, other than the fact that Joseph will never be able to do this to any other family again."
Kathleen Cornils, Plunkett's mother, said she also was pleased by the verdict and glad the jurors did not believe "what clearly were lies" from Mesa, who testified that he committed the killings after receiving instructions in his mind from hands in black leather gloves.
She said that after her son was slain, Mesa returned several of Plunkett's belongings to the family, with a note saying he had borrowed them and that he considered Plunkett a friend. Plunkett's father, Craig, called Mesa a "heartless, coldblooded killer."
Joseph Mesa Sr., who attended most of the trial with family members, was not in court yesterday. In interviews with WRC-TV (Channel 4) after the verdict, the family voiced sympathy for the families of Mesa's victims.
"Our thoughts and our prayers will continue to go out to the Plunkett family and the Varner family" and to everyone affected by the slayings, said Mesa's brother Patrick.
Joseph Mesa Sr. also expressed support for his son.
"He is my boy," the Mesa said. "He is my son, and for as long as he is still on this earth, we will love him."
Jane Fernandez, provost of Gallaudet, said in sign language that the verdict brought "a sense of closure, but I can't say we've all healed from this tragedy. . . . . There's a great sense of relief and confidence in the judicial system."
Mental health experts who evaluated Mesa said he has suffered a lifetime of depression, frustration and antisocial behavior, in part because he is deaf and felt he could not communicate his feelings to others.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeb Boasberg told jurors that Mesa was a brooding thug who planned, carried out and then carefully covered up the murders, with money his only motivation.
In her opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer M. Collins said Mesa chose Plunkett as his first victim because Plunkett had cerebral palsy and seemed an easy target. She said that on the evening of Sept. 27, 2000, Mesa slipped into Plunkett's room and wrapped his arm around Plunkett's neck until he fell to the floor. He then took a chair and beat him to death. Later, she said, Mesa took Plunkett's bank card and used it buy items at Union Station.
D.C. police initially arrested another Gallaudet student, Thomas W. Minch, in Plunkett's killing, but the charges were dropped. Minch, who was forced to withdraw from the university, subsequently sued the D.C. police for wrongful arrest. That suit has been on hold awaiting a verdict in the Mesa case.
Four months later, on Feb. 1, 2001, with the Plunkett killing unsolved, Mesa went into Varner's room and killed and robbed him, Collins said. Because Varner was bigger, she said, Mesa knew he would be "harder to kill" than Plunkett, and he used a knife to inflict 17 stab wounds.
After the killing, Mesa returned to Varner's room several times to get things he had left behind, including his jacket and the knife, Collins said. But police found other evidence, including bloody shoe prints, and zeroed in on Mesa after a bank videotape showed him cashing a forged check of Varner's for $650.
"The police came under a lot of fire for arresting the wrong guy in this case, but they really redeemed themselves with some terrific detective work" for the Mesa trial, Boasberg said.
On Feb. 13, 2001, with police beginning to build a strong case against him, Mesa confessed in a 3 1/2-hour videotaped statement, saying he committed both slayings to rob the victims. His attorney tried unsuccessfully to prevent the jury from seeing the tape.
Later, on the stand, Mesa said he robbed and killed his classmates because macabre images of hands in black leather gloves -- belonging to "the Undertaker," a professional wrestler -- directed him to kill them.
At one point during his testimony, Mesa told Boasberg that the hands were telling him to kill the prosecutor.
"You are thinking about attacking me. But you've been able to control yourself," Boasberg said, trying to make a point that Mesa could control his actions. "You haven't attacked me, have you?"
"Not yet," Mesa replied through a sign-language interpreter.
Bond, Mesa's attorney, said Mesa suffers from several mental illnesses and should be sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of prison. He said Mesa's calm demeanor during the murder trial was a clear sign of psychosis.
"I think that's a sign of insanity," Bond said. "The man is on trial for two [murders] . . . and he's sitting there unaffected."
Still, Bond said yesterday, "I can't tell you that the verdict was unexpected." He said he fears Mesa might try to commit suicide.
He said he plans to appeal the verdict by challenging the judge's decision to allow letters between Mesa and his girlfriend to be used in the trial.
In those letters, Mesa wrote to Melani de Guzman, telling her he was planning to fake insanity during his trial.
Joseph Beckvermit, 37, the jury foreman, said the evidence gathered before Mesa testified, particularly the taped confession, made it difficult to believe his claim of insanity. Had Mesa mentioned the gloved hands in his confession, it "certainly would have made a difference. We would have given it more weight."
He said jurors were disappointed to learn that, according to mental health experts who testified, no tests exist to determine the sanity or insanity of a deaf person. "If this case does anything," he said, "I hope it does provide the initiative for more research to be done in the areas of psychological testing for deaf people."
Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold and Allan Lengel and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.