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Drifter Judged Sane in Killing of Mental Health Therapist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Santa Monica Superior Court jury found Monday that a delusion-plagued homeless man was legally sane at the time he stabbed his therapist to death in a county mental health clinic.

Sentencing for David Scott Smith, 27, could come as early as today but most likely will be postponed until early next year, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Diamond, who prosecuted the case.

Smith faces 26 years to life in prison for the Feb. 21, 1989, stabbing of Robbyn Panitch, a 36-year-old psychiatric social worker. If he had been ruled insane at the time of the killing, he would have been committed to a state mental hospital.

“I am pleased as punch,” said a relieved Gloria Panitch, the victim’s mother. She and her husband, Allan, maintained a front-row vigil inside the courtroom each day of the monthlong trial.

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The Panitches had said they feared Smith would be released in a couple of years if he were sent to a hospital.

“It’s a big relief (because) he’ll be off the streets,” Gloria Panitch said. “We won’t have to worry about another killer out there.”

Ending 2 1/2 days of deliberation, the seven-man, five-woman jury determined that Smith was legally sane and could distinguish right from wrong when he repeatedly stabbed Panitch at a small, county-operated mental clinic in Santa Monica.

The sanity verdict came in the second phase of Smith’s trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder Dec. 4.

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Smith, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, told authorities he believed he was killing the “Antichrist.” The slaying outraged the county’s mental health community and led to calls for better security for counselors who work with increasing numbers of mentally disturbed transients.

Smith’s public defender, Carol Clem, had argued that the “delusions and demons” that tormented Smith robbed him of any capacity to understand that his actions were morally wrong. Two court-appointed psychiatrists testified that Smith was legally insane when he killed Panitch.

But several jurors said Smith’s behavior before the murder as well as statements he made to police, indicated he understood society’s rules but chose not to follow them.

While the jurors said they did not dispute that Smith is a paranoid schizophrenic, they decided that his ability to understand rules--for example, he followed terms of probation from an earlier crime and sought help from authorities before killing Panitch--showed he could distinguish right from wrong.

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Several jurors, who asked not to be named out of fear of Smith, said they focused on one of his statements in particular: “I thought I could get away with it,” he told detectives after he was arrested.

But they said the verdict of sanity was not easy to reach because Smith is clearly mentally ill. One juror said the issue almost deadlocked the panel.

“He’s messed up,” the foreman, a Santa Monica engineer, said. “You can’t draw a hard line against him. You have to have compassion. That’s what made it difficult.”

Clem was not available for comment. She had voiced concern that the jury would rule against Smith out of sympathy for the victim and her family.

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