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Cover Story: The Cruel and Bitter Reality of Mental Illness
Commonwealth v. John du Pont


by Thomas A. Bergstrom

Fall 2000, Vol. 63, No. 3

On January 26, 1996, a day as cold and gray as death itself, John du Pont drove his Lincoln Towncar down the tree-lined driveway and out the front gate of his Foxcatcher Estate and into the abyss of insanity. Winding his way west down Goshen Road, he re-entered the property by way of an access road and drove to the home occupied by David Schultz and his family. Schultz, a wrestler with Olympic credentials, lived on the estate and was the anchor on du Pont's internationally recognized Foxcatcher team.

Snow and ice covered much of the ground, a testament to the storms of that January. The time was 2:41 p.m. Dave Schultz was working on his car in the driveway. It was cold and death had arrived. As his Towncar pulled into the driveway, du Pont lowered his window, picked up a .357 Magnum revolver that lay on the front seat and fired three shots into the body of Dave Schultz. Nancy, Dave's wife, looked on in horror from a kitchen doorway.

The autopsy report would later reveal the first bullet had passed through the chest wall and diaphragm, through the stomach and heart, and came to rest in the chest cavity. The second bullet entered the abdominal cavity and exited out the lower back. Bullet number three entered the right back and lodged in the lobe of the lung on the left-hand side. The manner of death was determined to be homicide.

I, like many other lawyers, followed the path of this case from John du Pont's ultimate arrest (following a bizarre three-day standoff) through the spring and summer of 1996. It was clear early on that issues of mental health would play a prominent role in any defense of John du Pont. Through media reports, the picture of a man encumbered by delusions and paranoia emerged. For John du Pont, mental illness was not a myth. The question of his competency to stand trial became a focal point.

John du Pont was being represented by Richard A. Sprague, William Lamb and his longtime counsel Terry Wochok. A competency hearing before Judge Patricia Jenkins was scheduled for September 20, 1996. On the eve of this important hearing, du Pont fired Sprague and Lamb, perceiving them as involved in a conspiracy against him with the District Attorney's office. His paranoia was in full bloom. He had been locked in the Delaware County Prison since late January.

Rain splashed against the window as my telephone rang at 9:30 p.m. The caller inquired as to whether I would be interested in taking over the du Pont defense. For a lawyer who has devoted his entire career to criminal trial practice, this was the professional opportunity of a lifetime.

I met with du Pont at the Delaware County Prison five days before the scheduled start of his competency hearing. His paranoia and delusional belief system manifested itself almost entirely during our discussions. For example, his constant requests for bail were driven in large part by his belief that the military would ultimately sort this episode out given his status as a prisoner of war. I worked very hard in a short time period to satisfy myself that he understood that I was to be his new lawyer, if that is what he wanted.

The timetable set for the competency hearing was not to be disturbed; Judge Patricia Jenkins was not inclined to accommodate a request for continuance. Under Pennsylvania law (50 P.S. §7402) a defendant is incompetent if he or she is substantially unable to understand the nature or object of the proceedings, or is unable to participate or assist counsel in the preparation and defense of the case. The burden is on the defendant to establish either of these criteria by a preponderance of evidence, Cooper v. Oklahoma. While this may seem a slight burden, in reality it is a heavy one indeed.

Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, a well-respected forensic psychiatrist from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and University Hospital of Cleveland, as well as Philadelphia's Robert Sadoff, spent considerable time attempting to evaluate du Pont to determine his competency. A monumental problem throughout this case was his refusal to cooperate with these doctors. Driven by his paranoia, he was distrustful of even those who had committed themselves to helping him. A videotaped interview of du Pont at the Delaware County Prison had been taken in mid-March by Resnick and Sadoff. As the tape ran and the interview progressed, the full panorama of John du Pont's paranoia and delusions became patently obvious. Both Resnick and Sadoff were prepared to opine that du Pont was not competent to proceed and not competent to assist counsel. The court independently engaged Dr. Thomas Gutheil of Massachusetts and Dr. Theodore Barry of Philadelphia to evaluate du Pont. The commonwealth hired Dr. John O'Brien, a lawyer and psychiatrist, to render an opinion.

Parenthetically, following the killing of Schultz, du Pont retreated to his estate. A standoff with police followed over the next two and a half days during which taped telephone negotiations ensued directly with du Pont. While he repeatedly asked to confer with his counsel, it was apparent from the tape that John du Pont did not appreciate all that was going on around him. He referred to his estate as hallowed ground, and himself as the Christ Child. He perceived a war between the United States and the Soviet Union was unfolding on his property. The tapes revealed an eerie sense of detachment from reality.

While the prosecution believed the tapes supported their view of competency, given his repeated requests to speak with counsel, this superficial analysis faded quickly when it became apparent that du Pont wanted counsel to contact the Bulgarian Embassy, as the ambassador there would straighten out this mess to the satisfaction of the authorities.

The standoff ended with his arrest on January 28. The evidence developed thereafter revealed a myriad of delusional beliefs. He was the Dalai Lama, the Christ Child, "the last surviving heir of the ruling family of Russia," the head of the Communist Party and the President of Bulgaria. His former counsel testified during the competency hearing that at no time during his almost eight-month representation of John du Pont did he "have a meaningful discussion with him regarding the nature and consequences of the charges against him."

Ultimately, Dr. John O'Brien stood alone in his view that John du Pont was competent to proceed. Gutheil and Barry had originally been guarded in their opinion, leaning toward competency, until they viewed the videotape. Notwithstanding a four-to-one advantage in favor of incompetency and the slight burden borne by the defense, the court found that the scales tipped ever so slightly in favor of incompetency-a reluctant finding, but an appropriate one. John du Pont was committed to Norristown State Hospital.

Building 51 at Norristown State Hospital houses the forensic unit. John du Pont described it as a "death camp," and his therapist as part of "a filthy communist conspiracy to create a new world order." Progress notes reveal that du Pont was viewed as "withdrawn, guarded and suspicious." He was seen as paranoid, with grandiose delusions and distorted thinking. A regimen of anti-psychotic medicine was begun and increased to 10 mg of Haldol twice a day, along with 1.5 mg of Cogentin. Eventually he was placed on 10 mg of Olanzapine. A second competency hearing was held during December 1996 and du Pont was found to be competent to proceed. The trial date was set for January 27, 1997; du Pont was to remain at Norristown.

It was of course a foregone conclusion that every citizen of Delaware County, and therefore every potential juror, had heard or read about the case. It was also clear that a change of venue would not be considered by the court unless and until the impossibility of selecting a fair jury became apparent. A request for a change of venire was never seriously considered, as it would have resulted in a sequestered jury. The court allowed individual voir dire and on the fourth day a jury of twelve and six alternatives was selected. The issue was now joined between the commonwealth and John du Pont: Was he insane at the time he killed Schultz?

"There is no difficulty in the case of a raving madman or of a driveling idiot . . . But between such an extreme case and that of a man of perfectly sound and vigorous understanding, there is every shade of intellect, every degree of mental capacity. There is no possibility of mistaking midnight for noon; but at what precise moment twilight becomes darkness is hard to determine." [Commonwealth v. Trill, 543 A. 2d. 1106 (1988)]

Pennsylvania has long followed the M'Naghten test of insanity formulated in 1843. To establish insanity it must be clearly proved that at the time of the commission of the act, the defendant was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know, he did not know what he was doing was wrong. This tough cognitive test leaves no room for irresistible impulse, diminished capacity or failure to appreciate the wrongfulness, or failure to conform his conduct to the law. Again, the burden is on the defendant to prove insanity by a preponderance of evidence; the commonwealth must prove sanity beyond a reasonable doubt. The road to establishing insanity, even by a preponderance, is incalculably long, for only a jury determines when twilight becomes darkness.

An historical record is critical to the insanity defense. In du Pont's case, there was an abundance of evidence pointing to a delusional belief system and paranoid fixations. A Newtown Township police report dated November 24, 1995 (two months before the killing) memorialized an interview with du Pont wherein he believed a secret international conspiracy was afoot to have him removed as an international wrestling coach; that if the investigation was "not solved and an arrest was not made soon the entire Russian Army would be in Newtown Township fighting the ultimate war with the Americans." He felt the conspiracy was also meant to kill the Holy Child . . . that he was "the Holy Child . . . the Dalai Lama . . . the Head of the Buddhist Church of the World."

In painstaking detail, testimony was elicited that du Pont ordered razor wire to be installed within the walls of the mansion, the property was dug up in an effort to uncover hidden tunnels into the house and an armed security force was hired to patrol the grounds. John du Pont slept with a gun in his bed. What was painted on this canvas, according to the experts, was paranoid schizophrenia.

Along with Resnick and Sadoff, the defense called William T. Carpenter of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, the leading authority on schizophrenia, and Dr. Paul Appelbaum of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Simply establishing that du Pont suffered from paranoid schizophrenia was not enough, for even the commonwealth's expert, Dr. Park Dietz, agreed with the diagnosis. It was necessary to establish that this mental disease precluded him from knowing the nature and quality of his act, or that he did not know it was wrong.

As we flashback to January 26, 1996 and refocus the lens, several images emerge that must be explained. The third and final bullet went into Schultz's back. What better evidence of premeditated murder than a bullet in the back? The gun used (a .357 Magnum revolver) was not the gun du Pont normally carried. He usually carried a smaller caliber .38. When he returned to the estate, he locked the gun in his safe and presumably disposed of the shell casings, as they were never recovered. He told his staff that if the police showed up they were not to let them in. Finally, the two-and-a-half-day standoff itself was, according to the commonwealth, an acknowledgment that he was aware that he had done something wrong. Was it premeditated murder, or did the effects of a mental disease cause him not to know that what he had done was wrong?

Playing back the evidence, a theme emerged from du Pont's delusions and paranoia-war, the advancing Russian Army, conspiracies to kill him, the threat that was on the farm, the belief that Schultz was a Russian KGB agent, that "they are after me," that "they are trying to kill me." The case became, as one might expect, a battle among these grand experts, giants in their field. Was John du Pont insane or wasn't he?

There was someone else with du Pont in the car on that cold, gray January day when he shot Dave Schultz: Patrick Goodale, a security guard. The trial evidence revealed that on that day, du Pont went to an Ardmore stamp store, purchased some collector's stamps and said he would return on Monday to pick them up. He then drove back to his estate, met with Goodale, invited Goodale to ride with him around the property to "inspect storm damage," drove to Schultz's house and . . . Why would anyone take an eyewitness to a killing? It was a question the commonwealth could not answer. The answer for us was simple: He didn't know what he was doing was wrong, therefore Goodale's presence was of no consequence to him.

Earlier, during the preliminary hearing, Mrs. Schultz was asked if she knew any reason why John du Pont would kill her husband. Her simple "no" to that question would later echo in the courtroom during the seven-week trial. No motive, no reason. The commonwealth was checked, but not checkmated.

In 1982, in the wake of the Hinckley verdict, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Guilty But Mentally Ill (GBMI) statute (18 PA §314), a reform aimed at reducing the number of insanity pleas and acquittals by offering an alternative (compromise) to the insanity verdict. Four possible verdicts became possible: not guilty, guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, guilty but mentally ill. The Pennsylvania GBMI verdict has withstood constitutional attack and cannot be waived by the defense, Commonwealth v. Trill.

Following seven days of deliberations, the jury convicted John du Pont of third-degree murder and found him to be mentally ill. The jury, in its collective wisdom, decided that when du Pont murdered Schultz, he did so "as a result of mental disease and defect, lack[ing] substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." The community that now condemned him by its verdict failed to heed the ominous danger dancing with his delusions: the security agents who stoked the fires of his paranoia with razor wire, tunnel digging and weapons; police officers who learned of the conspiracies to kill the Holy Child, of international terrorists, Russian soldiers and war; employees and trusted ones who in silence watched John du Pont's passage from reality.

Mental illness is not a myth. It is not some ingenious falsehood presented to the public by medical doctors who call themselves psychiatrists. No, mental illness is a cruel and bitter reality. John du Pont is currently serving a thirteen-year sentence at a state correctional institution.