It has been five years since the arrest of Russell Weston Jr., but it remains unclear when, or if, his case will ever proceed to trial.
Weston, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic charged in the July 24, 1998, shootings that killed Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson, was declared incompetent to stand trial in April 1999 and now resides in a Butner, N.C., federal prison hospital.
In an attempt to make him fit to stand trial, Weston has been forcibly medicated with anti-psychotic drugs since 2002. But ongoing debate, sparked anew by a recent Supreme Court ruling, makes any competency ruling — and therefore a trial — seem like a far-off prospect.
Although required by a court order to continue treatment through November, it is unclear when Weston, who has been indicted but never tried, could be deemed competent and subject to a hearing on his ability to stand trial.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, acknowledges, “We’re still a long ways away from a trial date.”
For the time being, the court receives reports on Weston’s mental state, while periodic hearings are held to monitor his status. The most recent hearing was in June.
Attorneys for both sides acknowledged that difficulties arise when any trial stretches over a number of years.
Among those problems, said A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender representing Weston, is the fact that “witnesses’ memories dim.”
And, Phillips said, there are other difficulties, unrelated to legal issues.
“Our concern is really for the family members, the wait that they’ve had to endure. But just like any case, it’s problematic, but it’s part of the system,” he said.
In the meantime, Kramer has said he plans to file a motion based on the recent Supreme Court decision in Sell v. United States, in which the majority outlined several conditions that must be met in order to forcibly medicate a defendant, such as a clear government interest in prosecuting a crime and lack of alternatives to forced medication.
Kramer, who will likely file the motion by September, declined to discuss any details of his argument, stating only, “When I file it, that’ll say what I think Sell means.”
Similarly, Phillips remained mostly silent on the high court’s decision, stating that what, if any, impact an appeal will have “remains to be seen.”
In discussing possible outcomes related to the Sell decision, several legal scholars pointed to differences in the charges levied against Weston and Missouri dentist Charles Sell, who faced Medicaid fraud and other charges. Weston has been charged with two counts of murder of a federal officer, one count of attempted murder of a federal officer and three counts of using a firearm during a violent crime.
“I think it’ll have some impact, but in the end, the major distinction is that Sell was charged with a nonviolent crime,” said American University law professor Robert Dinerstein, who specializes in the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as the rights of people with mental retardation and mental illness.
Nonetheless, Dinerstein added: “If you’re representing him, you would reopen it. The standard the court adopted is a different standard than what appeals [in Weston’s case] had looked at, so I think that there at least might be some reason to think about or to reconsider it.”
Weston’s attorneys appealed Sullivan’s 1999 decision to approve medication, arguing that their client has a constitutional right to appear at his trial in the same mental state he was in during commission of the crime. The defense asserted that its ability to present an insanity defense would be hindered if a medicated and sane Weston were to appear before a jury, which could give him the death penalty.
However, in December 2001, the Supreme Court declined to take the case, upholding an appeals court decision that medicating the defendant didn’t violate his right to a fair trial.
Georgetown University law professor M. Gregg Bloche, a psychiatrist, testified for the defense during the appeals process. In a recent interview, he said that while medication can reduce psychotic symptoms, it can also introduce changes in a person’s demeanor.
“Jurors draw conclusions on how a person appears at trial. For instance, a person who seems to have a flat affect might be perceived by jurors as disengaged from the proceedings and therefore callous. That could come back to hurt a person, especially a person who is accused of a violent crime,” Bloche said. “People have their prejudices and stereotypes about mental illness. They might well expect a person who looks stark-raving mad and when they don’t see that, they might think a person’s faking it.”
But, David Siegel, a professor at the New England School of Law in Boston, believes the format used in Weston’s case — in which dosages of drugs are slowly increased and carefully monitored — could actually become a benchmark for future cases of forced medication.
“Weston is a good example of what you are likely to see in future cases involving involuntary medication after Sell,” Siegel said. “Very lengthy repeated hearings with detailed fact-finding and careful consideration by lots of judges about types of medication, consequences of medication, [and] the effect on the trial process.”
The Ruby Satellite
In interviews with defense psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Resnick in 1999, Weston described a “ruby satellite system” located in the “great safe” of the Senate. He told Resnick he was attempting to reach the satellite system in July 1998, to use it as a transporter and travel to a time when he is “no longer deceased.”
Weston also outlined a “conspiracy of murder and cannibalism” involving then- President Bill Clinton, Russia, China and the District Court judge.
Weston, who previously spent 52 days in a Montana state mental hospital as a diagnosed schizophrenic, explained his ruby satellite theory to a CIA officer in 1996, during a visit to that agency.
For the time being, Weston will continue to be medicated and monitored, and another hearing is not likely to be scheduled until this fall, Phillips said. At that point the prosecution could seek an extension of the medication order, but that has not yet been decided.
“The court does have to review the medication and before the court is willing to extend it or continue it, obviously they’ll hear from the government and the defense,” he said.
In a recent telephone interview, Russell Weston Sr. said he remains opposed to medicating his son as long as the death penalty remains a possibility if his son is convicted.
“I saw in the newspaper one time that we still back our son. We love our son, but we don’t approve of what happened,” he said.
On the advice of his attorney, the elder Weston declined to comment further.
Dinerstein, Siegel and others discussed various directions the Weston case could take, including the possibility of long-term involuntary commitment.
“It’s conceivable in some period of time, say a couple of years, that there’s some movement to say, ‘Well, you know what, nothing’s ever going to happen with him. Let’s commit him because he’s still dangerous or still mentally ill, but we’re never really going to be able to try him for the case,’” Dinerstein said. “I think people [will] try very hard not to get to that point, given the notoriety of the case, but it’s certainly not impossible.”
In such an instance, Weston could be committed to a secure hospital facility rather than a prison, but would not be found guilty of criminal responsibility for his alleged actions.
Additionally, Dinerstein and Siegel noted, Weston cannot be medicated against his will indefinitely.
“There are some kinds of limitations,” Dinerstein said. “Over time it becomes a matter of due process, you just can’t lock someone up forever on the hope that they’ll become competent if it’s pretty clear that he’s not.”
But, if Weston does eventually achieve competency to stand trial, the records of his on-going mental status could be used by defense attorneys to illustrate his mental state at the time of the shootings.
“They’ll be relying on people who saw him in the past and documents from his prior hospitalization,” Siegel said. “But, while that’s absolutely right, evidence from the last four years about the degree of his mental illness will also be very useful, even though it’s after the crime. If the defense can show that it’s similar to his behavior and his condition before the crime, that’s going to corroborate testimony from the witnesses about how he was in the years leading up to the crime.”