Jury rejects mental illness claim in bank robbery

Thursday, September 20, 2007

William M. White III, of Mechanics­ville, Md., knew he was doing something wrong when he committed a bank robbery in Cape Girardeau last year, a jury decided Wednesday.

The jury of five men and seven women returned a guilty verdict after three hours of deliberation, declining to believe the defense's argument that White suffered a mental illness.

In Missouri, someone can be found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental disease or defect if the person was incapable of knowing and appreciating the nature, quality or wrongfulness of his conduct.

Tuesday, the jury heard testimony from witnesses stating that on Aug. 12, 2006, White walked into US Bank on William Street, took a deposit ticket and wrote "I have a gun. No cops. I'll kill. Hundreds and fifties."

He showed the note to a teller and robbed the bank of $2,600, according to witness statements.

A bank employee recorded the license plate on the white Ford F-150 pickup White used to flee the scene, and police arrested him 20 minutes later in Sikeston, Mo.

The stolen money was later found in a cubbyhole in the truck cab after White told an officer where he'd left it.

The jury heard Dr. Alwyn S. Whitehead, a psychologist, testify for the defense Tuesday, saying that based on a battery of tests and a nearly six-hour mental examination, White suffered from schizophrenia.

Trauma stemming from abuse White suffered as a child and a recent breakup with his fiancee caused him to experience a "dissociative fugue," or temporary separation from reality, Whitehead said during testimony.

To rebut the defense's argument, Dr. Stephen Courtois testified for the state Wednesday morning, saying he believed White was "malingering," or faking the mental illnesses because the defendant displayed a "whole bundle" of indicators.

Despite several crying episodes during the hour-and-a-half interview, White never shed an actual tear, Courtois said.

Just after White was seized by panic attacks, Courtois observed him relaxed and calm, chatting with a guard.

His behavior was also exaggerated and bizarre, whereas most people suffering a mental illness try to hide their condition, Courtois said.

"He was very eager to show us he had symptoms. He wanted to make sure we had every bit of it down," Courtois said.

During cross-examination by White's attorney, district defender Christopher L. Davis, Courtois admitted he hadn't interviewed any of White's family members and that his evaluation had been shorter than Whitehead's exam of the defendant.

"This is a man who knew what he was doing, he was committing a robbery," Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle told the jury during closing arguments.

Davis asked the jury to imagine the horror of going to prison for a crime they had no memory of having committed.

The jury returned a verdict finding White guilty of first-degree robbery, meaning he faces a sentence of 10 to 30 years or life, because he has prior out-of-state offenses for burglary.

"I'm disappointed in the verdict, but I really appreciate that the jury took the time to consider all the evidence," said Davis, who will appeal the verdict and request a new trial.

Swingle said he intends to ask for a life sentence. White also faces charges for bank robberies in Utah, California and Arizona, where he allegedly made stops before coming to Cape Girardeau.

"I'm very pleased the jury used their common sense in seeing through a very bogus argument," Swingle said.

Sentencing was set for Oct. 29.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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