Ever since a transient stabbed their daughter to death nearly two years ago, Gloria and Allan Panitch have kept close watch on the workings of justice.
The parents of Robbyn Panitch, a 36-year-old psychiatric social worker, attended nearly every preliminary court session in the case and occupied the front row of a Santa Monica courtroom every day of a monthlong trial to determine the fate of their daughter’s killer. Throughout, they filled books with notes, details, dates. Toward the end, Gloria Panitch began knitting a black sweater.
“We have to do something,” Gloria Panitch said. “We can’t just let (her death) go by the board.”
Added Allan Panitch: “We can’t just let her go.”
Their dogged pursuit has taken the Panitches beyond the courtroom. They lobbied Sacramento, appeared at press conferences, testified before county supervisors, wrote to newspapers and U.S. senators and enlisted in support groups for survivors of homicide victims.
They have even tried to play a role in the trial of the man who killed their daughter by offering advice to the prosecutor, whom they address on a first-name basis and telephone at home.
It is all part of an effort, they say, to salvage some measure of good from tragedy. Like many Americans who feel impotent in the face of skyrocketing crime and baffled by a cold and distant judicial system, the Panitches are not content to stand by and allow their daughter to be forgotten.
Robbyn Panitch was stabbed to death on Feb. 21, 1989, at a county mental health clinic by David Scott Smith, a delusion-plagued homeless man who was her patient.
Smith was convicted of first-degree murder last week by a Santa Monica Superior Court jury. The panel will soon rule on his sanity, a verdict that will determine whether he goes to prison or to a mental hospital. As the jury deliberated this last question on Friday, the Panitches were there again, floating in and out of the courtroom. The deliberations ended Friday without resolution and will resume Monday.
Smith’s attorney has argued the husky, bearded 27-year-old is a paranoid schizophrenic who thought he was killing the Antichrist and could not distinguish right from wrong. The Panitches hope Smith is ruled sane so that he will be sent to prison and not be released for many years. They fear a hospital would not hold Smith for long.
The Panitches believe their courtroom appearances have not been wasted.
“We felt it was very important that they knew there was a family,” said Gloria Panitch, who retired from her own practice as a therapist because she could no longer “see patients the same way.”
"(Our presence) says there is somebody who was killed. The whole trial is about the defendant. We were there for Robbyn.”
A particularly difficult moment came last week during the sanity phase of the trial. As a court-appointed psychiatrist described the furious repetition of Smith’s knife attack on Robbyn Panitch, the mother, seated as always in the front row, closed her eyes tightly and bowed her head. The white-haired father gently touched his wife’s arm.
The Panitches say they are not trying to improperly influence the trial but do offer the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Diamond, occasional advice. Even before the trial started, they met with the chief deputy of the district attorney’s office in Santa Monica, Mike Carroll, to insist that the prosecutor on their daughter’s case be someone experienced in insanity pleas.
“They have expressed concerns on several occasions,” Carroll said, estimating he had met with the Panitches a dozen or so times.
Their behavior, he said, is typical of mourning relatives of homicide victims, for whom bringing the killer to justice becomes what he called an “obsessive concern.”
“They share an attitude that parents of murder victims have, that the whole prosecution becomes the single focus of their lives,” Carroll said. “All their energy and emotion goes into it. At the same time, they don’t shake any of the grief.”
Whether they intend it or not, the Panitches’ daily presence in court clearly tempts the sympathy of jurors. Diamond, the prosecutor, made a point of telling jurors in his closing statement that the judicial system, in its effort to be fair to the defendant, often renders the family “irrelevant.”
Carol Clem, the public defender who is representing Smith, said she was concerned that sympathy for the Panitches might become a factor in the jury’s deliberations.
“They certainly have a right to be there . . . (and) I certainly sympathize with them,” Clem said. "(But) I hope (their presence) doesn’t affect the jury. It’s not supposed to. The jury is not supposed to act in sympathy with any side.”
With the case coming to a close, part of the Panitches’ mission is nearing an end. But the couple--longtime Democratic Party activists for whom political crusading is nothing new--count few victories.
They had hoped to make the world a little safer for mental health care workers. They had hoped to enact legislation that would allow the victim to be represented in court.
A bill authored by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) at the Panitches’ urging that would have beefed up security at mental health clinics was vetoed by the governor. Santa Monica, deciding that cutbacks in state funding made it impossible for clinics to provide adequate security, declined to prosecute the owners of the clinic where Robbyn Panitch worked and died.
Although the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the county Mental Health Department for violations at the clinic, including the lack of an emergency alarm system, the county is appealing the citations.
“A (expletive) thing hasn’t been done, except what we’ve done ourselves,” a visibly frustrated Allan Panitch said. “The only reason we are doing all this is to see that someone else isn’t hurt.”
And that goal, he complained, is no closer than it ever was.