Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Is Henderson mentally ill or a cold-blooded killer?



BRADENTON -- Days after his four family members were beaten to death in their Myakka City home, Richard Henderson sat across from a detective and admitted to the killings, prosecutors said Monday.

The reason: Henderson said he felt smothered in his home, unable to break away from his family and do what he wanted.

For the first time since the Thanksgiving 2005 murders, prosecutors unveiled part of the confession during opening statements in Henderson's trial on murder charges that could bring him the death penalty if convicted.

During his confession, prosecutors said, Henderson told authorities he wanted to leave the family and start out on his own, but they would not let him. His father, Henderson said, liked to call him a "screw-up." Careers in the rural farming community were limited, and problems at school meant he "didn't have a chance."

Jury selection wrapped up and opening statements began Monday afternoon in a case that will likely turn on how Henderson is perceived by jurors, as prosecutors and defense attorneys offered contrasting pictures of him in their opening statements.

On the one hand, prosecutors say he is a cold, vicious killer who used a metal pipe to bludgeon his mother, father, grandmother and 11-year-old brother in their rural Myakka-area home. Henderson was arrested a few days later while walking along a highway in Ellenton.

But defense attorneys say Henderson was a lost, drug-addled teenager who mutilates himself and struggles with insanity.

From the start, there has been little argument about who killed the Henderson family.

Henderson, sporting a fresh black eye on Monday after a fistfight in a jail shower over the weekend, has admitted to the beatings, prosecutors say.

Now, though, the questions are: Why did it happen, and did Henderson have a mental defect that led him to commit the crimes?

"This is a tragedy brought on by severe mental illness," said Franklin Roberts, one of two defense lawyers. "The act, the horrible act, was of someone who was insane."

His lawyers say Henderson has a brain abnormality that leads to manic bouts, rising and sinking emotions, and an internal struggle that troubled him even as a boy.

He twice was taken into custody under the state's Baker Act, which allows for temporary involuntary commitment of people with mental problems.

In December 2004, he was hospitalized for mutilating himself. He tried to commit suicide about a month before the killings.

If the jury of seven women and five men believes Henderson was insane, he could spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric facility. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors at the trial Monday countered the insanity claim with Henderson's confession and an apology note left in the family's home. In the note, Henderson said he deserved to die "one million times for every one of you."

"I will be punished," he wrote.

This, Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten said, is proof enough that Henderson understood the magnitude of the acts. Also, he said, Henderson later told detectives that he methodically walked through the house and killed each person.

Prosecutors say Henderson beat his 11-year-old brother, Jacob, and then dumped him out of a window. They say he then dragged his brother's body around the house to the laundry room, where he covered it with a blanket. Henderson also stole the family's van and rendezvoused with a girlfriend in Ellenton, prosecutors say.

"I can't turn back," he later said.

Prosecutors are expected to call police officers, crime scene technicians and Henderson's family and friends this week. The trial could last until the end of next week.

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