Mental health workers testified Monday about the crippling mental illness suffered by the parents of capital murder defendant Russell E. Brown III as part of a defense bid to persuade jurors the genetic deck was stacked against him and he therefore should be spared the death penalty for killing master trooper Junius A. Walker.
During the sentencing phase of Brown’s capital murder trial, now in its fourth week, six mental health professionals described how Brown’s parents were severely mentally impaired for much of their lives and were unable to take care of Brown or his twin sisters — or even themselves without assistance from others. Brown’s father, Russell E. Brown Jr., suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia, and his mother, Sheila Dowdy-Brown, was mentally slow with bipolar disorder.
After convicting Brown on Thursday of capital murder in the March 7, 2013, fatal shooting of Walker, the six-man, six-woman jury is now hearing evidence from the defense to help them determine whether they should recommend he be put to death or serve the rest of his life in prison without parole.
The defense called 16 witnesses Monday before the court adjourned for the day. The defense said it expects to have about two more hours of testimony when the trial resumes today.
Dinwiddie County Circuit Judge Paul W. Cella indicated the prosecution and defense would then make closing arguments and the jury could begin deliberating on punishment this afternoon.
A separate sentencing hearing will be held for the remaining charges for which the jury returned guilty verdicts: attempted capital murder of Trooper Samuel Moss, the attempted murder of truck driver James Hales, and two accompanying felony firearm offenses.
Brown, 31, who lived in Chesterfield County at the time of the killing, was convicted of gunning down Walker, 63, after the veteran trooper pulled alongside Brown’s disabled vehicle on Interstate 85 to see if he needed assistance.
After killing Walker with four shots, Brown fired at Hales after the truck driver spotted Walker’s police cruiser in the woods and stopped to investigate. As Hales escaped in his truck, Moss arrived and exchanged gunfire with Brown before Brown fled into the woods — dropping his Russian-made .308-caliber Saiga rifle and disrobing as he ran.
Stung by the jury’s rejection of defense evidence that Brown was psychotic and legally insane at the time of the offense, Brown’s defense team is now pulling out all stops to save him from execution.
In addition to testimony about the mental illness suffered by Brown’s parents, the defense called nine witnesses — including two of Brown’s former high school teachers — who testified about his largely good character and nonconfrontational nature in the years leading up the trooper’s killing. Brown was variously described as laid-back, well-behaved, nonaggressive, very likeable and a caring confidant to his close friends and family members.
Reginald Studivant, a former worker at Central State Hospital where Brown was being held and mentally restored to competency, said Brown was never violent to other patients — even when he was physically attacked by other inmates or had personal property stolen from his room. “He really wasn’t a problem,” Studivant testified.
In underscoring what attorneys have described as Brown’s predisposition toward some of the most severe mental illness that exists, mental health workers who had contact with Brown’s parents over the years described the delusions and disorders they suffered that eventually led to child protective services removing Brown and his twin sisters from their custody.
Dr. Mario Gomez, a psychiatrist who treated Brown’s mother, said he saw her “fairly frequently” for 12 years beginning in 1997 and she presented as being clinically paranoid; she was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Gomez said Dowdy-Brown, who had a strained and chaotic relationship with her children, had been an inpatient at two local psychiatric hospitals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
She could be vindictive and abrasive and was “not able to finish one thought before going to the next” in rapid fashion, Gomez testified.
Dr. Renuka Moothathu, of Insight Physicians, said she had treated Brown’s father’s paranoid schizophrenia since 2004 and he experienced delusions and auditory hallucinations that were treated with anti-psychotic medication.
Kathi Shiff, Brown Jr.’s former caseworker at the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, recalled one episode when Brown believed the weatherman on television was talking directly to him, and that he had magical powers to make the weather happen rather than just forecast it. Brown Jr. did not understand why he had to take medication and denied that it did him any good, Shiff testified.
Under cross-examination by Dinwiddie Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nelson Fisher, several of the mental health workers acknowledged they never treated Brown III for mental illness and their testimony was relevant only to his parents.
Several witnesses had positive things to say about Brown, such as Chesterfield English teachers Stephen Bolt and Elizabeth Lucas, both of whom were Brown’s instructors more than a dozen years ago.
Bolt, who also coaches sports, recalled Brown’s participation on the Monacan High School junior varsity football team roughly 15 years ago. Brown was quiet, got along well with his teammates and “wasn’t the most aggressive kid,” although he was athletic and performed well as a defensive end, Bolt testified. He played all season one year and made all the practices.
Lucas recalled Brown as a “tall and skinny” ninth-grader who wasn’t particularly scholarly but was laid back and likeable as a student. As a rookie teacher and only age 22 at the time, Lucas also recalled that Brown, unlike some of her other students, did not test her as a new teacher.