Mental Illness and Moratorium issues
Granted stay of execution
George Banks was a prison guard who, using an assault rifle, killed 13 people, including seven children, five of them his own; his three live-in girlfriends; an ex-girlfriend; her mother; and a bystander in the street. In the early morning of September 25, 1982, Banks shot to death Dorothy Lyons, Regina Clemens, Susan Yuhas, Montanzuma, age six, Bowende, age four, Mauritania, age one and Fararoude, age one, Dorothy's daughter Nancy Lyons, age 11, Sharon Mazzillo and their son Kismayu, age six, Sharon's mother, Alice, her nephew, Scott, age seven and a bystander. Banks was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of 13 people.
Trial testimony indicated that, over time, Banks "developed a persecution complex and became obsessed with the paranoid delusion of imminent international race wars and uprisings." Beginning in 1976, Banks became convinced that a racial war would erupt. He talked about and wrote numerous stories reflecting his pre-occupation with white supremacy, and a racial war in which his male sons, Kismayu, Bowende, and Fararoude would be generals leading an army in a fight against the systematic elimination of blacks. He prepared for the impending war by stockpiling supplies in remote mountain locations and purchasing an AR-15 rifle
In February 1980, Banks began working as a prison guard at the Camp Hill Pennsylvania State Correctional facility. On November 25, 1981, Banks wrote in a journal:
"I feel that I am insane. I have the impulse to take the shotgun out on the catwalk and kill some inmates. I can't think. I'm writing one word at a time. I beg Allah for help-please. My young children come from play and in vain, they ask for me. What has the white man and his senseless racism done to me? Will I live to see my children grow?"
In August, 1982, Banks told co-workers about a custody suit involving Sharon Mazzillo and their son Kismayu, stating that if he wasn't successful in the suit he would kill his family and himself. He was successful in retaining custody. On September 6, 1982, Banks was relieved from guard duty at the state prison and transported to a mental health facility after telling a fellow guard that due to depression and other family problems that he wanted "to go to the tower and blow his brains out." Between September 6 and September 24, Banks underwent three mental health evaluations. Banks also had to undergo a psychiatric reevaluation by the state prison psychiatrist before returning to work. Banks scheduled the appointment for September 22 and then rescheduled it for September 28. On September 17, eight days before the shootings, one evaluator noted that Banks was more preoccupied with the racial situation, (in Wilkes-Barre and the world), than any ongoing marital difficulty.
On September 24, Banks went to a party with Dorothy Lyons and Regina Clemens. He left the party and returned home where he drank gin and took some pills. He subsequently called Dorothy at the party and told her that he was going to the mountains. He also told her to bring home the AR-15 rifle that was at her sister's house. Dorothy, Regina and Susan Yuhas returned home with the rifle sometime after 1:30 am on September 25.
In the early morning hours of September 25, 1982 at their home on Schoolhouse Lane in Wilkes-Barre, Banks shot to death Dorothy Lyons, Regina Clemens and Susan Yuhas, four of his five children, (Montanzuma, age six, Bowende, age four, Mauritania, age one and Fararoude, age one), and Nancy Lyons, age 11, the daughter of Dorothy.
Banks' version of the incident began with his girlfriends waking him and dressing him in a military flight suit. After he put the bolt in the rifle and loaded it, he passed out. When he awakened, he became aware that he was dressed in the military outfit with a gun across his chest and his bandolier of bullets.
Immediately after the shootings, Banks confronted four teenagers outside his home. Banks testified that he walked towards them, firing his gun twice, shooting two of the youths, and killing one. He heard one girl yell "No, No, No" and thought "Maybe there was a life for them." He raised his gun, turned around and walked down the street. After stealing a car, he went to Sharon Mazzillo's trailer park. He broke into her trailer and shot to death his girlfriend, (Sharon Mazzillo) and their son (Kismayu, age six), Sharon's mother, (Alice), and her nephew, (Scott, age seven). Alice's two children, (Keith and Angelo), were unharmed.
The entire shooting spree lasted approximately 45 minutes. Banks then remembered waking up in a ditch, soaking wet, smelling of gunpowder and seeing a figure in the fog. He felt he had been involved in a great deal of violence. Police located Banks later that morning, barricaded in a friend's house in Wilkes-Barre city. During the ensuing standoff, Banks told the police that he killed his children to spare them from the racial prejudice that he experienced as a child. He repeatedly threatened suicide. The police used a fake radio broadcast, which aired that his children were still alive and being treated. This ruse convinced Banks to surrender to police without further incident.
The defense testimony at trial "presented a profile of a disturbed and paranoid man." Both prosecution and defense experts agreed that Banks suffered from a "serious mental defect," specifically, "paranoia psychosis." Paranoia psychosis is a chronic, rare and severe mental illness characterized by fixed delusional beliefs. In Banks' case, the fixed delusions involved racial persecution, violence and racial conspiracies.
On three separate occasions before trial, defense counsel raised the issue of Banks' competency. During the first two hearings, counsel presented psychiatric and lay testimony that Banks could neither assist counsel in relating a reliable, accurate account of the incident nor understand the object of the criminal proceedings. Defense psychiatrists concluded that Banks had a fixed delusional, paranoid belief that a white police detective had shot and mutilated his family, changed their clothing and body locations and covered up bullet holes with coroner paste. They further concluded that Banks perceived that the criminal proceedings provided a method to exhume the bodies and thereby prove the existence of a racially motivated conspiracy to fabricate and destroy evidence. The state trial court denied these motions.
Following jury selection, the trial commenced on June 6, 1983. The state trial court permitted defense counsel, over Banks' objection, to assert an insanity defense. This defense asserted that at the time of the incident Banks' held a psychotic belief that he had a right to kill his children to protect them from the racial prejudice he suffered and to insure that they died pure in the hands of God. Both the prosecution and defense psychiatrists agreed that, at the time of the incident, Banks was suffering from paranoid psychosis. Disagreement centered on whether, as a result of his severe mental illness, Banks was able to understand the nature and quality of his acts or able to distinguish between right and wrong with respect to those acts.
During trial, the state court permitted Banks, over the objections of his counsel, to personally cross-examine and direct counsel's cross-examination of witnesses and introduce into evidence photos of the deceased victims, which the court had initially suppressed due to their prejudicial content. In addition, a prosecution psychiatrist testified that Banks was psychotic and delusional when he testified, and his trial testimony was, therefore, unreliable. Despite this conduct, the state trial court summarily denied repeated defense counsel motions challenging Banks' competency.
Despite being presented with such evidence, the jury rejected an insanity defense, convicting Banks of twelve counts of first-degree murder, one count of third degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and related charges. Of note however, although the court rejected claims raised on direct appeal related to Banks' mental illness, it stated:
Before we leave the subject of appellant's mental condition, we wish to make it clear that we are aware that appellant suffers and has suffered from a mental defect that contributed to his bizarre behavior both in the courtroom and on September 25, 1982, when thirteen innocent persons were murdered by his hand. His behavior was inexplicable, and his thought-processes remain difficult to comprehend.
It should be noted that Banks was diagnosed in the 1980s with paranoid psychosis. Diagnostic categories have since changed and his attorney indicates the most similar diagnosis now would be something akin to a delusional disorder.
An additional argument of appeal is that his death sentence should overturned because jurors might have thought they had to be unanimous in finding a mitigating circumstance for the crime, such as mental illness. The Supreme Court has heard argument about whether Mills v. Maryland is retroactive, as a new rule of constitutional law. As a new rule, it could only be applied retroactively if it was a "rule of criminal procedure implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding." Finding that it was not a watershed rule, the Court found that it could not be applied retroactively and that the conviction was constitutional.
The last execution in Pennsylvania was of Gary Michael Heidnik on July 6, 1999. Indeed, since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976, only three executions have taken place including that of Mr. Heidnik: On May 2, 1995 Keith Zettlemoyer was executed and on 15 August, 1995 Leon Moser was executed. Of note, each of these previous executions involved a volunteer and hence the upcoming execution of Banks will be the first non-volunteer execution in Pennsylvania since re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976.
Letters Asking for Clemency
- November 19, 2004 - The European Union has issued a demarche asking Governor Rendell to grant George Banks clemency
- November 19, 2004 - The European Union has issued a demarche asking the Board of Pardons to grant George Banks clemency