DEMONS IN THE COURTROOM

Vince Greer heard voices in his head, then killed his mother. But prosecutors have their own departures from reality.

The morning Vince Greer's murder trial began, an illustrator for TV news sat on the first bench in the crowded St. Louis County courtroom, pastels and pencils awkwardly strewn around him. Taking advantage of the trial's delayed start, he gazed steadily at the defendant, making rapid arcs of color that contrasted with Vince's pale stillness yet captured every curve and angle of his young face. Soon Vince's father, Stan Greer, got up and crossed the aisle to peer at the sketch.

No victim has ever looked with such love at the image of his wife's killer.To the Greer family -- and that includes the relatives of Donna Greer, Vince's murdered mother -- the mystery was why the state wanted to prosecute an obviously sick child as a criminal adult. Surely only schizophrenia (the firm diagnosis of two psychiatrists, one of them court-appointed) could explain Vince's actions at 7 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1997, one week after his 15th birthday ("Dangerous Minds, RFT, March 25, 1998).

To St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough, who'd stepped in to try the case himself, something as subjective and easily manufactured as "voices" was no explanation for matricide. In the state's view, Vince was a good kid turned bad; he'd reached puberty, started smoking pot and skipping school, gotten angry with his parents, taken his dad's .22-caliber rifle and shot them. Lying on the floor behind the couch, he'd fired at his father, wounding him, then run around the outside of the house and up the deck, unjamming the rifle as he went. Crashing through a glass door, he held the rifle to his mother's temple as she lay huddled with his sister on the floor, then shot a bullet through her brain. Motive was irrelevant. He'd known what he was doing.

Vince Greer
Jennifer Silverberg
Vince Greer
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough: "How many people have you heard of who will kill people for 30 cents in their pocket?"
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough: "How many people have you heard of who will kill people for 30 cents in their pocket?"

McCullough treated this Greek tragedy like any other case of first-degree murder, first-degree assault and armed criminal action. He opened his case by playing the 911 tape of Lindsay Greer, Vince's then-13-year-old sister, screaming for help as she held her dying mother's body. He played the tape of Vince confessing the crime. He called a ballistics expert who described, in exacting detail, the science of cartridge markings. He asked the medical examiner, Dr. Mary Case, to describe the seared, sooty edge of the contact wound on Donna Greer's temple and tell the jury how "the velocity of the bullet is released into the tissue," setting off vibrations in the skull and breaking the thin shelf of bone over the eyes.

The defense wasn't denying any of that. What Vince's attorneys wanted to show was why, and therefore in what state of mind, he had killed. First they hammered away at the St. Ann police officers' flat reports ("What have you done to determine why Vince Greer shot his mother and father?" "Did you ever ask him what kind of trouble he was having?" "Do you know what schizophrenia is?") Then they chipped at the old stereotypes of mental illness ("Would you expect to see bizarre twitchings and turnings in someone who has schizophrenia?" "What you are saying is, the guy didn't jump around like a lunatic.") Finally they brought in the teachers who'd urged the Greers to get their son help and the psychiatrists who'd eventually -- too late -- diagnosed schizophrenia.

In the end, the trial was not a weighing of factual evidence (virtually none was in dispute) but a battle over interpreting human behavior. Precedent put the odds on the state's side; rarely is anyone acquitted of such a horrific crime because of a mental disease or defect, and the rarity has increased in St. Louis County under McCullough's leadership. Missouri law doesn't allow a "guilty but insane" formulation, and the very word "acquittal" panics people who don't know the defendant will be committed indefinitely to the custody of the Department of Mental Health -- or don't trust that custody.

Asked what he looked for in selecting the jury, chief defense attorney Brad Kessler tossed back a single word: "smart" -- jurors with enough intelligence to at least begin to fathom the cold medical mystery of schizophrenia and integrate that knowledge into a legal framework biased against its existence.

When we went to press Tuesday afternoon, those jurors hadn't even begun their deliberation.

Schizophrenia is a biological disease associated with a progressive deterioration in the circuitry between the frontal and temporal lobes. Usually beginning between ages 14 and 30, with an earlier onset for males, it seems to have a genetic component. (Vince had at least two schizophrenic relatives, and a third committed suicide, a frequent outcome of schizophrenia.) The illness is punctuated by psychotic breaks from reality -- delusions (fixed false beliefs) and hallucinations (false sensory perceptions) -- as well as disconnections between feelings and thoughts, disruptions in the ability to think rationally and periods of agitation or stupor.

Another common symptom is "flat affect" -- a stiff, constrained facial expression, as though someone has cut the puppet strings the mind uses to pull the face into a show of feeling. Psychiatrists weren't the first to notice this in Vince; teachers, friends and family members all described a loss of animation, and they also mentioned seeing a "glossed-over," "glazed," "dull" or "strange" look in his eyes on several occasions before the November shooting. His principal at Ritenour High School, Cathy Nickens, ran into him in the hall earlier that fall, and the look in his eyes so alarmed her, she took him to the counselor's office immediately. Even St. Ann police officer Brad Morris noted that when officers questioned Vince right after the shooting, "his facial expression didn't really change" and most of the time he sat quietly, impassive and nearly motionless.

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