- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

SALISBURY, Md. The mothers of two slain Eastern Shore police officers tearfully described what their sons meant to them as the sentencing phase in the trial of the officers' killer began yesterday.
Francis Zito's mother, Betty Zito, also took the stand yesterday, choking down sobs and pleading with the jury to spare her troubled son's life. The jury, which convicted Zito, 43, on Friday of two counts of first-degree murder, was to decide whether he should be put to death or sentenced to life in prison.
Zito was convicted of shooting Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Schwenz and Centreville Police Officer Michael Nickerson on Feb. 13, 2001, on the porch of his Centreville trailer. A neighbor had complained that Zito was playing music too loud, and Zito refused to come out after police arrived.
Sue Nickerson told jurors that testifying in court was "the hardest, hardest, hardest thing I've ever had to do."
As a few of the jurors dabbed their eyes with tissues, she described the phone call informing her that her son had been shot in the back and killed.
"My life and the life of my family will never move beyond that moment," she said.
She described Officer Nickerson, 25, as a proud and generous uncle who talked about "the day he would have his own children." Holding up the last photo she had of him, Mrs. Nickerson said her son loved being a police officer.
"I used to say to him when he put on that uniform, he grew another foot," she said. "He just looked larger than life to me."
Deputy Schwenz's mother, Connie Schwenz Kirby, said that after her son's death "there's only a big, gaping hole left in my heart."
Recalling her son, 28, as a baby, Mrs. Kirby described him as "everything a parent could want."
"From the first time you feel a baby on your arm, his heartbeat, his breath on your neck, there is a bond that lasts forever," she said.
During the trial, Zito's defense argued that he was not criminally responsible for the killings because of mental illness most frequently diagnosed as schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type.
In opening statements for the sentencing phase, defense attorney Brian Shefferman asked the jury to "temper justice with mercy," arguing that circumstances beyond Zito's control came together on the day of the killings, and that life in prison was a stiff enough penalty to serve.
Mrs. Zito spoke about her son's childhood.
"He was ornery, but he wasn't bad," she said with a feeble voice.
"He was just different-acting," she said. "You know when your children act like the others and when they don't."
Mrs. Zito said she tried desperately to find ways to help her son, first putting him in special schools, later seeking psychiatric help and moving to tiny Centreville in the early 1990s because she thought it would keep him out of trouble.
Asked what the jury should consider about her son, Mrs. Zito said he had "a lot of circumstances that went against him, because he was a good boy."
"I wish that they would let him live," she said, holding a tissue to her mouth. "I know it's hard on the other people, but this is hard, too."
Zito showed no emotion and rocked back and forth in his chair during his mother's testimony.
Pamela Taylor, a psychiatric social worker at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, a state psychiatric center, also testified for the defense. She said Zito "came from a very violent home life," with a domineering, abusive father who beat him and disowned him.
That upbringing, coupled with his mental illness, had a profound influence on his behavior as an adult, she said.
"I think he was a very crippled person," she said.


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