Capitol Shooter: Russell Weston, Three Years Later

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?I walked out of the bright Friday sun and into the Capitol Bldg.'s Document Entrance two hours before the gunman arrived. The back of my collar scratched sweat against my skin, and I loosened my tie in a vain effort to find relief from the sultry July heat. I remember nodding hello to the tall black policeman who was standing at the metal detector in front of the Document Entrance door. I don't remember if he smiled back. From what friends tell me now, he usually did.

At 3:40 that July afternoon, Russell Weston Jr. stepped into the air conditioning of the Capitol Bldg. through that same door. He took five short steps across the tiles to where the officer on duty, 58-year-old J.J. Chestnut, was writing down directions for a group of tourists who had just finished the official tour. Weston raised his gun with speed and silence and put a .38-caliber bullet through the back of Chestnut's head.

Chestnut never saw his killer. He dropped to the ground, his tall frame collapsing in a heap, flecks of his blood and shattered skull covering the clothes of the 15-year-old in front of him.

Doug McMillan, an officer who was walking toward the Document Entrance through "the crypt," the basement under the Capitol dome, saw Chestnut hit the floor. Yelling a warning to bystanders and congressional staff, McMillan threw his own body in front of a group of tourists, drew his gun and exchanged fire with Weston. The semiautomatic flashed and recoiled in his hands like something alive. Shots ricocheted off gleaming marble and cut holes through the crowd. Tourist Angela Dickerson, 24, hit the floor after a stray bullet slammed into her shoulder and another creased her eye and face, her flesh rolling back in a flap.

Weston ran confused from McMillan and followed a woman running for cover in the "Private Entrance" door to the left of the Document Entrance. It was the back door to Majority Whip Tom DeLay's suite. Weston ran through it, directly into the path of Special Agent John Gibson.

Inside DeLay's office complex, aide Scott Hatch and Gibson, DeLay's personal bodyguard, heard the sound of gunfire and traded glances. Gibson was a tall man with a tough Boston accent and, at 42, still had the muscular bulk of a former football player. Bracing his arm against the back exit doorframe, Gibson bellowed through the office for DeLay and his staff to take cover under desks and furniture. Hatch couldn't tell whether someone was pushing on the door from the outside, or whether the gunfire was coming their way, but he turned and ran into the inner office. As he locked the door with about 15 aides huddled inside, Hatch saw Gibson put his left hand on the back door handle, his right hand reaching for his gun.

The woman rushed through the doorway with Weston at her heels. Gibson acted fast, pushing the woman to safety as he yelled for Weston to drop the gun, shielding her from the spray of lead that caught him right across the chest.

Gibson jerked back, his torso covered in blood, but kept his footing. Weston fired again, his bullets drilling into Gibson's body. The guard fired back five times: Weston recoiled at a shot to his knee, then dropped to the carpet with a gaping hole in his stomach.

Outside was chaos. No one knew what had happened. The tv cameras were already setting up, but no one knew what to report?only that gunfire had been heard inside the Capitol. The ambulances couldn't get through the barriers and had to roll over the sidewalks and grass. Officers tried to escort the panicked tourists from the building, some screaming about fire, others a bomb?they hadn't seen Weston. I heard an officer yelling, "Does anyone understand Japanese?" Some reporters were claiming that an explosion had erupted in the crypt, and debated whether it could be a prank, or terrorism; people whispered, "Arabs?"

Inside, John Gibson slumped to the floor against the oak desk next to the door, slowly and quietly bleeding to death as the paramedics arrived.

Across Constitution Ave. from the Capitol, Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and trauma specialist, had just finished speaking on the Senate floor and was headed to his Dirksen Bldg. office suite to pack up for the trip home when a staffer phoned to tell him what happened.

"Something bad is going on at the Capitol," the staffer said?television stations were reporting that two people were down, seriously injured, and possibly the gunman as well. "You might want to get back here fast."

Frist hung up and told the aide driving the car to turn around and head back to the Capitol. He'd catch another flight back home.

In his shirtsleeves, Frist got out of the car and sprinted onto the Capitol grounds, past police and camera crews, tourists and reporters, and into a ground-floor door. A security guard put his hand up to stop him, then realized who he was.

"Where is it?" asked Frist.

The Senator looked down the hallway into unadulterated carnage. Desperate staffers were tending to an officer with a gaping gunshot wound in his chest, blood pooled on the floor. Frist noticed another man being wheeled out of the Document Entrance on a stretcher. It was Chestnut. Frist, helping the medics carry the stretcher out the door, became a doctor, not a politician, and saw: massive head trauma, a stopped heart, the man unable breathe.

"You've got to get air into the lungs, you have to compress on the chest," he yelled over the sirens. The Capitol physicians put in a breathing tube. A medic started compressing Chestnut's bloodstained chest as Frist ventilated air through the breathing tube, squeezing the bag. He helped them load the stretcher into the ambulance, then stayed until Chestnut was stabilized. Frist sent the ambulance off knowing that Chestnut was fighting a losing battle.

"This severe a head trauma, I have seen nobody survive," Frist would tell The Washington Post afterward.

He ran back across the asphalt as John Gibson's body was loaded into a U.S. Park Police helicopter?it was headed for Washington Hospital Center?and saw Russell Weston on a stretcher in the shade, awaiting a second ambulance. He knelt beside Weston's stretcher and started CPR. This time, Frist rode to the hospital with his patient, in case the man's chest might have to be opened en route. He stayed by Weston, who had a 6-to-8-inch chest wound, until he turned the gunman over to the trauma team at DC General Hospital. Chestnut was pronounced dead at George Washington University Medical Center. Gibson's heart stopped after nearly five hours of emergency room surgery. Weston survived. Later, the doctors told reporters that Frist probably saved Weston's life. Frist himself didn't know whether Weston was a wounded bystander, or the gunman himself.

"I am trained to take care of the patient," Frist later told reporters. "I was focused on how to keep his heart going and his lungs going... I am not trained to think of anything else in that situation."

?It took several days for most of the papers to unravel fact from fiction in Russell Weston's rampage through the Capitol on that hot Friday in 1998. Most observers agreed there was little the Capitol Police could have done to stop a determined and deranged gunman like Weston. A short man with thinning hair and squinting blue eyes, he'd told Montana neighbors that the "cannibals" in the government were using a "Ruby Surveillance System" to spy on him. Michael Grunwald and Cheryl W. Thompson reported in The Washington Post two days after the shooting, "He once accused his frail 86-year-old landlady of assault and battery, and allegedly harassed several county and state officials when they refused to press charges against her." In early 1996, Weston was interviewed by the Secret Service concerning the delusional letters he had written about the federal government. Evidently, he wasn't a very intimidating person in that context?the Secret Service computer files listed him only as a "potential low-level threat." He was committed to a state mental hospital later that year, after threatening a Helena resident with a knife. Less than two months later, he was deemed safe for society, and released.

One Thursday in July, two years later, Weston broke into his parents' Illinois home and stole his father's old Smith & Wesson. After spending a few hours using his parents' cats for target practice?he left the carcasses in a bucket by the front door?he pointed his red Chevrolet pickup truck toward Washington, and hit the gas.

?In the wake of the Capitol shootings, many had to suppress their natural instinct to mourn. The police continued to guard the building, keeping the doors on the "People's House" open despite the human urge to shut the place down for a while. They still have to do their jobs, and we still have to do ours.

I stood on the East Front Capitol steps and watched the first flowers arrive on the Friday evening after the shooting. They were still coming late Wednesday night?an outpouring of wreaths, roses, bright summer flowers, each standing in line, in someone's stead.

On Monday, the House joint-conference slowly made its way past the steps. There were no tv cameras around to see the members of Congress walk by, some in twos and threes, others standing alone. Jim Rogan of California stood on the House steps and remembered how J.J. Chestnut had taught his young daughters the correct way to salute when they visited the Capitol for the first time. Illinois' Ray LaHood talked about a casual barbecue fundraiser he'd attended with Tom DeLay. Someone tried to encourage Gibson (at DeLay's side, as always) to loosen up and have a beer, or at least a hotdog. John thanked them politely, but rejected the offer: he was on duty.

?Everything hinges on competency, the prosecutors said. That was the reason for the sophisticated case, the massive files and folders, the overwhelming amount of collected evidence. It was also the reason that, 10 weeks after the shooting in 1998, the court appointed forensic psychiatrist Sally Johnson, chief psychiatrist and associate warden at the Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina, to evaluate Weston. She'd examined John Hinckley after he shot Reagan, and evaluated Kaczynski as well. She'd found them competent to stand trial, despite the fact that both are also diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics. They take pills for that.

The legal standard for competence is straightforward and less strict than it is for the insanity defense: the defendant must understand the role of his lawyer, his judge and the prosecutors, and be able to assist his lawyer in forming a defense.

Regardless of whether Weston truly is mentally ill, he still proved a very able murderer. He drove from Illinois to DC and parked his truck near the Capitol Bldg. without drawing suspicion. He concealed his gun and his extra ammunition in different pockets and avoided the watchful eyes of the Capitol police?many of whom can spot a jaywalker a mile away. He composed a convincing facade of normality, all the way up to the point where he aimed his .38 at the back of J.J. Chestnut's head and pulled the trigger.

He might have some kooky ideas, but the prosecution was prepared to go after him full throttle. Johnson evaluated Weston for four days, a series of interviews lasting more than 20 hours.

"I can explain everything very clearly to you," he told her.

When Johnson asked Weston if he understood the current case, he said he was confident that his lawyers could accurately explain his concepts of time reversal?because of his power of time reversal, no event is ever permanent. He recited his theories on the "Ruby Satellite System," which "washes time in reverse." He described his involvement in the "World Summit for Time Reverse Technology."

Johnson asked Weston about his trial. He said it would never happen. "They will simply do a time reverse, and I'll be off and running in a different direction," he said.

Johnson decided that Weston was incompetent to stand trial; however, "with adequate treatment with antipsychotic medication, there is a significant likelihood that competence can be restored."

A judge remanded Weston to a federal psychiatric facility for treatment. What he needed was a course of Risperdal, Haldol or Prolixin?antipsychotic medicines that had previously been prescribed to him. He had just stopped taking them.

But Weston refused to sign the patient consent forms, and his defense team jumped at the chance to stop the medication process. Twice Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has ruled that Weston should be medicated, and twice the defense has appealed the decision. As the three-year anniversary of the shooting approaches, Weston's lawyers have successfully jabbed, dodged and maneuvered to forcibly prevent or appeal all attempts to administer any medication. The case has ground down to a Mexican standoff.

Here's the deal: If Weston is competent, he could face the death penalty. If he doesn't take any medication, he isn't competent. If he isn't competent, quid pro quo, he doesn't get fried. Therefore, Weston's lawyers block the court-ordered treatment. They now argue that Weston has gone so many years without treatment that his brain might not respond to antipsychotic medications. They keep him nuts, inhuman, trapped in the twists and turns of his psyche. They avoid a trial. They avoid justice.

And even as this defense keeps Weston from the courtroom, it exacts a slow torture of physical and mental pain. Because Weston has received no treatment and is deemed dangerous, he has been kept in isolation for more than two years?two court-appointed psychiatrists have testified that the seclusion without treatment has resulted in a progressively vicious medical deterioration. When psychiatrist David Daniel took the stand last November, he named Weston one of the most desperately ill schizophrenics he had seen in 14 years of practice, and said that, in this case, "involuntary medication is in the patient's interest, and not outside the ethics of my profession."

Defense attorney Gregory Poe proceeded to argue that treatment is not an option, that forced treatment is a violation of Weston's rights and that Daniel's testimony was ill-informed and factually inaccurate. Poe did not mention the ethics of his own profession.

Today, Weston sits in his padded cell swathed in a medical blanket, bearded and unkempt, his blue eyes rolling around his head with dizzying speed. He picks at his self-inflicted scabs and lets his mind wander on invented paths.

?By any moral measure, our responses to Russell Weston and his crimes have been a complete and utter failure. No trial. No verdict. No denunciation. Nothing.

David Gelernter, the Yale professor and author, once observed that while we cannot hold society accountable for failing to prevent an evil act, we can and must hold it responsible for failing to condemn an evil act. Whenever a terrorist like Weston murders a man?for whatever reason, insane or no?the responsibility falls to us, as a society, to respond. Evil men will always exist, and they will do evil things. It is the communal response to an evil act that matters. It must resound with dignity, assurance and absolute clarity. Moral bankruptcy must be matched with a clear moral answer. Insanity must be confronted with sanity.

By allowing a communal verdict of legal stonewalling and unchecked insanity, we are complicit in Weston's sin. Three years ago, we had our period of public mourning. Today, we look the other way. We convince ourselves that Weston's declining mental and physical state will serve, in place of a verdict?does a courtroom gavel matter that much, anyway? We let this moral defeat stand, shrugging off this systemic failure. We avoid glancing down that blood-stained hallway.

The prosecutors should recognize their legally entangled situation. They should take the death penalty off the table and cut a deal with the defense to move forward and medicate Weston, attempt to heal his mind. The death penalty, in this case, may be as much an act of vengeance as it is one of justice, and besides, there is a better way.

The condemnation they should seek instead is, perhaps, equally great?a sentenced life of imprisoned sanity. Today Weston still lives in the web of his own delusion, his ideals of immortality and time reversal. Some have testified that Weston does not yet know what he has done, that he believes Gibson and Chestnut and even himself could be resurrected through "time washing" or some other deranged technique. Weston may well desire to avoid sanity and the means of achieving it?the overwhelming guilt that it brings can be a very painful thing?but he has forfeited his right to direct his own actions, and the truth must be known. There are those who would argue that medication without consent ought not be allowed, even in a case as extreme as this, but there are precious few madmen in the world who would of their own accord seek after sanity. Spare us the posturing of promiscuous sympathy for the legal shield of Weston's irrationality that makes of death a thing without consequence

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