By BILL KACZOR
SHALIMAR — Persian Gulf War veteran Jeffrey Hutchinson never wavered from his claim that two men wearing ski masks burst into his Florida Panhandle home and killed his live-in girlfriend and her three children.
The former Army Ranger stuck to his story even when Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputies told him the evidence, including blood on his clothing and shotgun residue on his hands, indicated there were no intruders and that he was the killer.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Hutchinson responded, according to a transcript of the interrogation just hours after the Sept. 11, 1998, killings. “Nobody is looking for them?”
Investigators instead charged Hutchinson, 38, who has been diagnosed by a California psychiatrist as suffering mental problems linked to his service in the Army and the Gulf War. His trial is to begin with jury selection Monday.
Defense lawyer Stephen Cobb called Hutchinson “a mentally incapacitated soldier of misfortune.”
Hutchinson could receive a death sentence if convicted on any one of four first-degree murder counts. He is charged with the shotgun slayings of Renee LaDean Flaherty, 32, and her children, Logan, 4; Amanda, 6, and Geoffrey, 8. They were killed in the home they shared with Hutchinson near Crestview.
The victims had moved to Florida from the Spokane, Wash., area the year before to make a new life after Flaherty was divorced. Hutchinson came with them. Flaherty found work as a part-time postal worker in nearby Niceville. Hutchinson was self-employed as a body guard.
In more than two years since the murders, Hutchinson has maintained his innocence and steadfastly refused, against the advice of his lawyers, to purse an insanity defense that also would be an admission he was the killer.
Hutchinson did agree, however, to undergo examinations on his mental competency to stand trial. Circuit Judge G. Robert Barron ruled Hutchinson was competent Friday after getting conflicting opinions from two court-appointed mental health experts.
Dr. Vincent Dillon, a psychiatrist, said Hutchinson was a manic-depressive who suffered from a bipolar disorder. Dillon based his opinion in part on Hutchinson’s Army and medical records that showed evidence of symptoms that include delusions, paranoia, belligerence and mood swings.
“To go forward with the trial in this cause while he is mentally incapacitated would not be a legitimate prosecution but would amount to slaughterhouse persecution,” Cobb argued, but to no avail.
Barron sided with psychologist James Larson who found Hutchinson had only a behavioral disorder and was not mentally ill.
The defense still can present mental health evidence during the penalty phase of the trial if Hutchinson should be convicted. Mental illness can be used as a mitigating factor against the death penalty. The only other sentence possible for first-degree murder is life in prison without parole.
Dr. William Baumzweiger, a Tarzana, Calif., psychiatrist, earlier had diagnosed Hutchinson as suffering from neuro dysimmunity that can result in unconscious fits of rage.
Baumzweiger, who has challenged government findings in the debate over illnesses connected to the Gulf War, concluded Hutchinson’s possible exposure to chemical or biological weapons, or both, caused a diminished mental state at the time of the killings.
He had examined Hutchinson two years before the killings when the defendant was living in Washington State. Spokane television station KREM-TV flew Hutchinson to California to see Baumzweiger in connection with a 1996 special on Gulf War disease.
A sergeant, Hutchinson directed artillery fire and air strikes. His military career ended in 1994 with his discharge instead of a court-martial on charges of threatening to kill another non-commissioned officer and the man’s wife.
Investigators have classified the Florida killings as a case of domestic violence. They said Hutchinson had an argument with Flaherty that day, packed his belongings in his truck and drank at an AMVETS lounge before returning home.
Deputies were dispatched after receiving a 911 call from a man saying he had killed his family. They found Hutchinson lying face-down on the garage floor with “the brains and blood of the shot children” on his feet and legs, said Assistant State Attorney Robert Elmore at a pretrial hearing.
Barron last week rejected a defense motion to exclude a tape of the call from the trial after Cobb and his co-counsel, wife Kimberly, argued the state cannot prove the voice was Hutchinson’s.
Elmore said he would present witnesses that could identify the voice and other evidence that Hutchinson was the caller.
“Mr. Hutchinson was the only one there who hadn’t had his face blown off, with the handset still open to 911,” the prosecutor said. “You can hear the deputies arriving.”
NOTE: This was one of the worst cases I have ever tried. At the time, this was the worst mass murder case in Okaloosa County history – a record I hope is never equaled nor repeated. At the time of this case, none of us were aware of SPECT as a way to actually look at the human brain. SPECT would have been subject to a serious Frye challenge and probably not admitted into evidence. Now, I think any Frye challenge to SPECT is a slam dunk win for having it admitted. At this time, the defendant is challenging his conviction and death sentence in post-conviction proceedings. I firmly believe a SPECT scan immediately after the events in 1998 would have shown a brain dysfunction that was obvious, incontrovertible, and mitigating. A SPECT scan taken today would probably show major dysfunction, but would not show it as severely as it would have immediately after the shootings. Jeffrey Glen Hutchinson was, and is, mentally ill. The reason for the different conclusions was because none of the evaluators had access to the technology we have today with SPECT. Florida law recognizes downward departures in felony cases and mitigation findings in capital cases. SPECT would not have caused Mr. Hutchinson to win his case, but he would have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, as is legal, and in this case, just.
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