News: Wisconsin





That's one insane defense strategy

Jim Stingl

Oshkosh - The most believable witness I heard in court Thursday at the insanity trial of Eagle Scout gone bad Gary Hirte was not a shrink.

She was a mother.

Not Hirte's mother, but Shirley Kopitske, whose son Glenn was shot and stabbed to death by Hirte on a July night in 2003.

She testified that her 37-year-old son struggled to get through each day because of his bipolar disorder. He had been treated for it by doctors since he was a teenager and was on medication.

Her son lived on his own but needed his parents to drive over once a week from their home near Bonduel to clean his rural Winnebago County house and mow the lawn. He forced himself to make a list of things to do each day or he would end up just sleeping.


Listening to her testimony made me think that if the situation were reversed and Kopitske had killed Hirte, an insanity defense might make sense. His mental disorder did not conveniently pop up just in time for the murder and then disappear again before he got home for the night, as a psychologist claimed about Hirte during Thursday's testimony.

(If you're a juror in this case, stop reading right now. You know the judge told you to avoid newspapers and TV news until the case is over.)

John Liccione, an expert hired by the defense, told the jury that Hirte, 19, of Weyauwega, killed Kopitske in the throes of something called a psychotic depressive reaction. Basically he couldn't help it, even though he had no history of mental problems.

Liccione said Hirte was enraged when he sobered up and realized he and Kopitske had just had sex. Hirte projected all the blame on Kopitske, grabbed a shotgun and knife and killed him.

Liccione is nearly 80, and he struggled to hear and understand what the lawyers were asking him. He said he believed Hirte was depressed. His evidence of this is that Hirte had lost 30 pounds since the crime and had a "hangdog" face when he interviewed him. He admitted, though, that being in jail for several months could cause this, too.

When this case first grabbed sensational headlines, it was because Hirte, an exemplary student, athlete and Dairy Queen worker, was saying he committed the murder just to see if he could get away with it.

This sex stuff came much later, and the prosecution is trying to convince the jury that it's a fabrication. Isn't it odd, Assistant District Attorney Michelle Pennewell asked Liccione during cross-examination, that Hirte didn't tell even his parents about it?

"So he would rather have his parents think he was a cold-blooded killer than a homosexual. Is that your testimony?" she asked.

It's that difficult for a teen to admit this, especially in a religious family, Liccione said.

Think how deep this self-loathing can cut the next time you hear our leaders saying the rights of gays and lesbians should be curbed or denied.

We'll probably never know exactly what led to the slaying. To me, murderous rage over a regretted sexual encounter rings more true than simply picking a person to kill as a perverse challenge. But it doesn't do much to bolster the insanity defense.

People can do terrible things, especially when they're drinking. Killers usually don't come from the ranks of Eagle Scouts, but it's not impossible. A person doesn't have to be crazy to kill, and the state's doctors will say Hirte wasn't.

Could a fellow like Hirte fool a mental health expert? "Possibly. Yes," Liccione replied to this question.

Juries are usually pretty sensible. My guess is that they won't be so easily misled.

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From the Feb. 4, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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