By Dan Nienaber
ST. PETER — In their closing arguments, a prosecutor and defense attorney both used the stars and the sun to make their point about whether Burton Ewing Jr. was sane when he attempted to kill his mother in May 2012.
Ewing's trial before District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel ended Sept. 12 after the testimony of several witnesses, including three experts who interviewed Ewing after the 2012 attack to determine if he understood what he did to his mother, Marlys Olson, was wrong.
Two of the experts concluded Ewing was mentally ill and experiencing delusions when he beat, choked and stabbed his mother at Seven Mile Creek County Park while on a day pass from the Minnesota Security Hospital. One expert sided with prosecutors, saying Ewing is mentally ill but he knew what he was doing was morally wrong.
“There is an allegory that helps to keep the facts of this case in perspective,” Michelle Zehnder Fischer, Nicollet County attorney, said in her closing arguments. “In this case, (Ewing's) status as a patient at St. Peter Regional Treatment Center has become the sun. To a lesser extent the fact that (Ewing) suffers from mental illness is used to further make the sun shine brighter.”
Fischer goes on to say that bright sun shine is hiding the stars, or what she believes are the most important facts about her case against Ewing: He was using his medication, showing no signs of psychosis and “had a clear plan to kill his mother.”
Ewing has been in the treatment center's security hospital since 1998. He was placed there after he was found innocent by reason of insanity after he beat his sister, Mary Beth Ewing, to death with a hammer. Ewing had been planning to kill Olson, who was Mary Beth's roommate at the time, but decided to kill his sister because his mother wasn't home.
Krehbiel found Ewing, 49, guilty of attempted murder during a short first phase of his trial. She will now decide if he was again innocent by reason of insanity or should face a prison sentence for the brutal beating of his mother. One of Ewing's attorneys, Stephen Ferrazzano, provided oral arguments at the conclusion of the trial. Fischer issued written arguments, and Ferrazzano provided a short written rebuttal, to Krehbiel last week.
Ferrazzano repeated Fischer's sun and stars comparison to make his argument: Ewing was suffering from delusions even though staff at the hospital, who allowed him to leave the treatment center campus with a large duffel bag full of clothing and food and cash, couldn't see it.
“The stars are always present even though you can't see them during the day or on a cloudy evening,” Ferrazzano said in his rebuttal. “That is much like (Ewing's) mental illness, delusions and symptoms of relapse. You don't question their existence simply because you can't 'see' them.”
Fischer said Ewing knew attempting to kill his mother was wrong, pointing out that he admitted that to the expert examiners and an investigator who interviewed him a few hours after his arrest. He also told a witness, who happened upon the incident and likely saved Olson's life with a call to police, “this is my mother and I am going to kill her.” Also, if he really believed he was killing his mother to make the world a better place, as his attorneys argued, he wouldn't have bothered to make plans to escape, Fischer said.
Ewing's attorneys also failed to show that Ewing's mental illness prevented him from knowing what he did was wrong, Fischer said. There was no evidence, even though Ewing was watched 24 hours a day by hospital staff, that Ewing was having delusions during the time leading up to him leaving the hospital with Olson. She attended a quarterly progress meeting with Ewing before they left.
“There is not a single mention of a symptom to suggest that (Ewing) was psychotic or decompensating,” Fischer said. “It defies logic that (Ewing) would be so actively delusional that he planned to kill his mother, but still be able to act normally around his mother in the presence of staff.”
It did come out during the trial that Ewing believed his mother was the anti-Christ before he killed his sister in 1998. After the 2012 attack, Olson told law enforcement officers that Ewing was calling her that again while he was beating and stabbing her. Ferrazzano pointed that out in his rebuttal, adding that the expert who testified for Fischer said Ewing had maintained that delusion since 1998. Ferrazzano also brought up testimony from the experts that said the medication Ewing was using could mask symptoms of delusions.
“Just because staff at the hospital claims to have observed no symptoms of a relapse, doesn't mean a relapse wasn't occurring,” he said.
Krehbiel will likely issue a written decision sometime this week.