Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Playing the System: The Martin Appel Case

Nasty Surprise

Governor Casey's first term ended without Appel's death warrant being signed. His reelection meant even more delays. Yet Appel insisted he still wanted to follow through. This turned out to be all talk. He'd recently had surgery for an overactive thyroid, and that would soon figure into the imminent turn of the tables. When John Morganelli became district attorney of Northampton County, he looked into the case and realized that Casey was signing death warrants only for those cases in which stays were a firm possibility. Although he never stated this, many thought he did not wish to have an execution during his term in office.

Morgnelli took an unprecedented move, as he recounts it, and filed a lawsuit to compel the governor to act. Close to eight years after the crime, the Commonwealth Court voted in favor of commanding Casey to sign the warrant. But Casey appealed. The appeal was denied and he was given sixty days to comply. He appealed to a higher court but his term was ending, and his chosen successor was defeated by Tom Ridge. After more political haggling, on February 28, 1995, Governor Ridge signed the warrant. Appel was scheduled to die on April 4.

That's when the fireworks began. It turned out that Appel did not want to die, after all. Appel now requested legal assistance to stop the execution. He had played the system, getting plenty of attention, and now he was going to use it in a different way. He received a stay of execution so his attorneys could prepare.

Before Judge Freedberg, Morganelli opposed all Appel's requests. Freedberg denied the stay but ordered records to be given to Appel's attorneys. After much legal wrangling, the basis for the appeal emerged: Appel had suffered from delusions most of his life from an overactive thyroid, so all of his decisions were subject to evaluation for incompetence, even psychosis. In short, he was now angling for an insanity defense.

In addition, Appel's attorneys claimed that the state had failed to produce evidence that potentially exonerated him some of his psychiatric records - and had denied him appropriate access to legal counsel. Given how much everyone had extended themselves in 1986 and thereafter to cover all these bases, the claims seemed unfounded, even ludicrous. Yet, Appel's new attorneys were quite serious.

"Appel was psychotic and delusional," said Rob Dunham. According to the New York Times, Dunham worked for the Pennsylvania Capital Case Resource Center, an anti-death penalty organization that assisted convicted felons with the process of getting a stay of execution. On Appel's behalf, they said they wanted to vacate all legal decisions and start over.

Judge Freedberg had little choice. Under the assumption that, while Appel had been delusional during earlier proceedings, he was not delusional with this filing for post-conviction relief, he had to be given the benefit of the doubt even a small percentage of doubt. Paradoxical as it all seemed, Apple's ploy was exceedingly clever, and once again demonstrated both the egocentric and remorseless nature of a psychopathic personality. He had no regard for the ordeal through which he was putting his surviving victims and the victims' families. Freedberg said that legal precedent bound him to grant the stay.

In line with Appel's pompous notions about his intellect, he seemed determined to prove he was above the system and could manipulate it at will, deciding his own fate. An expert testified that he'd had Grave's Disease, which can produce psychotic states, and Appel's girlfriend affirmed his obsession with World War IIalthough she testified that his delusional statements had started only after he was arrested. When he'd "trained" Hertzog to go into the "mission" with him, he supposedly saw himself as a general commanding a soldier. (One source states that after Appel had been caught, he'd offered himself to the CIA for a suicide mission, to make his death worth something.) Reportedly, others now claimed he'd sought the death penalty so he wouldn't inadvertently reveal that the robbery had been a CIA plot.

However, there was no evidence that Appel had suffered any psychotic manifestations of Grave's disease, only heart palpitations. In addition, Hertzog testified that while Appel was "weird," it had been clear to him that the robbery had not been about a CIA operation but about getting money to pay off debts and purchase things for his girlfriend.

Experts for the prosecution reviewed the records to look at all the psychiatric evidence, convinced that everything had been done properly and thoroughly. There was no indication from any prison records that Appel had exhibited psychotic symptoms. One psychologist noted sociopathic features and criminal goals, and another who had experience on the parole board stated that while no tests had revealed mental illness, one showed a high score for psychopathic behavior. Appel's selective manner of revealing his supposed CIA link indicated controlled calculation, not delusion. Another professional explained that, in any event, delusional behavior did not necessarily imply incompetence to participate in legal proceedings. In addition, there had been no symptoms from Grave's Disease in 1986.

The whole thing appeared to have been an elaborate bluff, in keeping with Appel's need to be "somebody" and get attention and also to save himself.

However, the court dismissed Appel's contention that he was incompetent in 1986 and vacated the stay of execution. He was eligible to appeal this decision, and he did.

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