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Ruling sends Catlett to prison

June 10, 1998|By AMY WALLAUER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Tomahawk, W.Va., man who was found not guilty of arson by reason of insanity and then, at a subsequent trial, was found guilty of first-degree murder, will not to go to a mental hospital for treatment.

A Berkeley County Circuit judge on Tuesday ruled that Banner Catlett will spend life in prison without parole for the first-degree murder conviction, although state statutes require sentences be served in the order in which they were handed down.

It is a precedent-setting decision in Berkeley County and likely will go to the state Supreme Court for a ruling, said Judge Thomas Steptoe.

"What the judge has done in our opinion, is not follow the statute," said Public Defender Jerry Dambro, Catlett's attorney. "He has gotten into the realm of what he thought the intent of the law was, not what it says."

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In September 1995, Catlett, 22, was charged with arson in a fire that caused $50,000 damage to his family's home. While waiting for his arson trial, Catlett was charged in the shooting death of family friend Andrew Mason, 29. The aspiring minister was found dead in his mobile home on Feb. 4, 1997, shot twice in the head.

At the June 1997 arson trial, Catlett was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the William R. Sharpe Hospital in Weston, W.Va.

He escaped on Sept. 9, 1997, but was found in Los Angeles and returned to West Virginia.

"A daunting task for someone who is supposedly under a mental disability," Steptoe said Tuesday.

Catlett has been held in Eastern Regional Jail since his return to Berkeley County. He was convicted of first-degree murder in April in Mason's death.

Under state law, Catlett first should serve his arson sentence, which is treatment at the hospital until a county judge decides he is no longer a danger to himself or others, Dambro said. Then Catlett could begin his life sentence.

But Steptoe said Tuesday that Catlett could get the same treatment for any mental illness in a maximum-security prison, instead of in a minimum-security hospital, citing the need to keep the public out of danger.

"The defendant's safety can be monitored just as well in prison as at Sharpe, and he would be less of a danger to others," Steptoe said.

Dambro said he will appeal the judge's ruling before the West Virginia Supreme Court and ask it to clarify the law. He said he is also preparing to file an appeal of Catlett's murder conviction.

Throughout Catlett's three-day murder trial in April, the jury heard of Catlett's erratic behavior - stripping naked in front of guests, refusing to bathe, spitting to "get the evil out" and claims that the CIA and federal government were conspiring against him.

Witnesses said Catlett heard voices and believed "satellite people" had implanted a microchip in his brain. Catlett's aunt said he believed he was invisible to the satellite people when he was naked, so he would hang his clothes in trees. He was diagnosed by two doctors as having schizophrenia.

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