Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

The Trial

Opening statements began June 18, 1986, seven months after the shooting. Sylvia Seegrist was charged with three counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder and assault.

William Ryan, prosecutor.
William Ryan, prosecutor.
The prosecutor, William H. Ryan Jr, believed that Seegrist had planned the attack and had done it for attention.  Seegrist's defense attorneys said that she was ill and had not been able to appreciate that what she was doing was wrong. They were armed with testimony about early abuse, a breakdown in the mental health system, and a long documented history of severe mental disability.

Early testimony came from the security guard at the Springfield Mall. She had seen Seegrist on other occasions acting strangely. She reported that, after being handcuffed on the day of the incident, Sylvia had started talking about negative energy and a black box. It wasn't as nonsensical as it seemed. There was in fact a black box, which contained a Russian dictionary, high school homework, and newspaper articles that she was apparently trying to translate. The security guard stated that Sylvia admitted she had done something wrong and should have been shot.

Witnesses who had been at the mall that day were called to testify about what they had seen and heard. The injuries to the victims were graphically recounted, to the point where some people were in tears.

Sylvia Seegrist in police custody.
Sylvia Seegrist in police custody.

Ryan showed that Seegrist had joined a rifle club six months before the shooting, and her statements to both Laufer and the guard directly afterward indicated that she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She had also visited a lawyer on October 29, 1985, to have her last will and testament drawn up, as if she was expecting to die.

The defense brought Sylvia's mother to the stand, and she spoke about how Sylvia's paternal grandfather had masturbated in front of her when she was only eight, and had demonstrated various sexual positions. At age 15, she was diagnosed, and following that she had experienced fifteen separate hospitalizations. At various times, she had exhibited bizarre behavior such as cutting off all her hair, spray-painting herself, and writing hostile expressions on her walls.

Three mental health professionals, two psychiatrists and one psychologist, testified that Seegrist was too mentally ill to appreciate what she had done on October 30, 1985.  She had gone to the mall, one of them reported, with the idea that killing people would put them out of their misery because she believed that many people wished they had never been born. She also hoped to teach rescue personnel how to respond to emergencies, to make the Army proud of her, and to become a famous criminal as a way to find her identity. In other words, her thinking was delusional. Dr Gerald Cooke, Dr. Robert Bowman, and Dr. Robert Sadoff all concurred on this opinion. So did a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. James Ewing.

Dr. Park Dietz.
Dr. Park Dietz.

Ryan contended that since Seegrist had done well in psychology courses, she knew how to fool the doctors. He also brought Dr. Park Dietz to the stand, and he testified that Seegrist had known what she was doing and had known that it was wrong. While she had a mental illness, it might be bipolar disorder rather than schizophrenia. She had executed her shootings in an organized manner and had made statements to the police and security guard that indicated a planned attack that was under her control. She was therefore not legally insane.

The defense closed with the statement that Sylvia was a victim of mental illness, while the prosecution said that because she was unable to succeed at anything, she blamed society. The judge told the jury that they had four options: to find Seegrist guilty, not guilty, guilty but mentally ill, or not guilty by reason of insanity.

The trial had lasted eight days, and the jury of 12 took more than nine hours to deliver a verdict.

Seegrist was found guilty but mentally ill and given three consecutive life sentences, with a maximum of 10 years each for the seven counts of attempted murder. Sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation, she was eventually moved to the State Correctional Institution at Muncy.

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