October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

Two court officers half-carry Gena Spero’s limp body to the defendant’s chair, where she slumps slack-jawed, her tongue lolling, her eyes darting anxiously. Her chest heaves with labored breath as psychiatrist David Swenson testifies that Spero is psychotic and delusional—as she has been most of the time since her first court appearance nearly five years ago. Judge Robert S. Prince rules that Spero remains incompetent to stand trial and commits her to a mental hospital for another year. Spero does not react; she seems transfixed by something invisible on the floor. She is led from the courtroom. The next case is called.

The naked, strangled body of 21-year-old Hampshire College student Gina Sindoni was found submerged in a bathtub in a seedy Haverhill, Mass., apartment on the afternoon of Jan. 10, 1983. Eight days later, University of Massachusetts student Gena Spero, 19—Sindoni’s friend, and apparently her lover—was arrested and charged with her murder. Even Spero’s defense attorney concedes that she strangled Sindoni, though he maintains she didn’t mean to kill her. But Spero denies any involvement in Sindoni’s death. In fact, she often insists that Sindoni is not dead. At other times she says Sindoni committed suicide.

Gena Spero is mentally ill—now. No one disputes that. What is in dispute is whether, when she strangled Sindoni, Spero was so mentally ill that she was not criminally responsible for the killing. That question has never been addressed in court because of Spero’s obvious incompetence. What makes the case so exceptional and troubling is that she is, perhaps, incompetent by choice. For in the months following her arrest, Thorazine and other psychotropic drugs restored Spero to rationality. Then, after consulting with her attorney, she exercised her right to stop taking them and quickly regressed. She has in effect chosen to remain doubly imprisoned—in a locked psychiatric ward and in her own delusional world—rather than go to trial and face a minimum sentence of 20 years if convicted of murder.

Her attorney, Steven Colella, insists that delaying Spero’s trial was not his intention. His aim is to present an insanity defense, and he wants her off medication so that the jury can see how sick she really is. Unmedicated, however, she becomes incompetent and can’t go to trial. “That presents a catch-22,” he concedes. Colella has tried to break the impasse by offering a guilty plea to the lesser offense of manslaughter, but the prosecution has rejected the bargain. “She’s being put in a box,” complains Colella. “The prosecution is saying, ‘Until you agree to come forward and compromise your defense [by going to trial on medication], you’re going to rot in hell.’ ”

Hell is not too strong a word for where Spero has been. For about 18 months, until her transfer last fall to a state hospital, she was held in the Massachusetts women’s prison at Framingham. There she repeatedly burned her arms with cigarettes and refused to eat for days at a time. Judged to be a suicide risk, she was put in solitary confinement, where she began suffering seizures. “And when she had the seizures,” says Colella, “because they didn’t know what the hell to do, they’d tie her up.” Spero’s father, Haverhill police officer Joe Spero, says that on one visit he found her naked, lying face down in her own urine, her wrists and ankles strapped to hooks in the floor. Yet he supports the no-medication strategy. “The jury should see how she was,” he says.

Ironically, it may have been Gena Spero’s madness that drew Gina Sindoni to her when they met as students in Northampton five years ago. The two appeared to have little in common. Sindoni, who grew up in Beverly, Mass., was a talented poet and a precocious social activist. Scarcely a cause went un-bumper-stickered on her guitar case; she was intent on saving the world. Spero was a depressed alcoholic bent on destroying herself. But the two shared one great enthusiasm—hating psychiatrists.

Sindoni had been briefly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown at 15, and thought of herself ever after as a victim of the psychiatric establishment. She cherished a romantic idea of madness as sensitivity, of insanity as righteous rebellion, and she was eager to spread the word. “I want to be somebody’s messiah,” she wrote.

She thought she had found that somebody when Spero moved into the women-only boarding house where Sindoni lived. Certainly if anyone ever needed a savior, Gena Spero did—the razor scars on her arms were a road map of despair. Variously diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic or suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy or a personality disorder, Spero had been in and out of mental hospitals since she was 13, and in January 1983, she was on the verge of checking in again. Sindoni urged her not to. “Don’t bother with psychiatrists,” she wrote in one of her many notes to Spero. “You’re smarter than them.”

Tragically, Spero took Sindoni’s advice. A week or so before Sindoni’s death, Spero freaked out at school after ingesting some psychedelic mushrooms and was taken to a psychiatric ward. But before she could be admitted, Sindoni spirited her away to a hiding place near Boston. A few days later, Spero went to stay at the Haverhill apartment of a sometime boyfriend, Michael Costas. When Sindoni followed her, she was an unwelcome third wheel: Spero locked her out of the apartment overnight. The next day, after Costas went to work, Spero let Sindoni in. Hours later, Costas returned to find Sindoni’s body.

That night Spero went to her mother’s home. “Gena was gone, she was out of it,” says Carolee Spero, who is separated from Gena’s father. “She didn’t even know the girl was dead.” The police, who at that point suspected Sindoni had died of a drug overdose, briefly questioned Gena, who said she knew nothing. A week later, when the coroner discovered Sindoni had been strangled, Spero was arrested.

In the meantime, aware that his daughter might be a suspect, Spero’s father took her to Colella. “I couldn’t even get a story from her,” the lawyer recalls. “She was obviously psychotic.”

Prosecutor Robert Ziemian disagrees. “She was a student,” he says. “She was operating in the world that day. To say that the way you see her in court now is the way she was then is not true at all.”

So much hinges on Spero’s mental state then and now that whatever she actually did that day is reduced to a subplot. The prosecution will apparently try to show that Spero and Sindoni fought. But Colella maintains that, based on “bits and pieces” he’s put together from Spero’s story “that seem to be consistent with the physical facts,” Sindoni’s death was the accidental result of “erotic asphyxia”—that she consented to have Spero choke her during lovemaking.

What Spero did to Gina Sindoni, why she did it and whether she knew she was doing it are questions for a jury to decide. But there will be no jury so long as Spero remains incompetent, and she may remain incompetent forever without psychotropic drugs—a situation Sindoni’s parents find intolerable. “I think it’s a delaying tactic,” says Gina’s mother, schoolteacher Virginia Sindoni, of Spero’s refusal to accept medication. “I want an end to it. A trial will be an awful thing, but you have to go through it so you can say, ‘She’s guilty. The world says she’s guilty.’ ”

Prosecutor Ziemian shares her resolve. “Our intentions are to try Gena Spero, when and if she becomes competent. I’m prepared to wait. Another five years would not be too long.”

Meanwhile, Spero remains in a maximum security ward at Medfield State Hospital. At 23, she looks a decade older, haggard, with dark circles under her eyes and an inmate’s pasty complexion. But here, free from the panic attacks that afflict her when she goes to court—or even ventures with an attendant onto the hospital grounds—she is friendly and talkative. Speaking nonsensically and nonstop, she explains that she is “Purple Peter Pan” and “a good witch,” and that she is dead and nothing is real. She expresses no interest at all in her legal situation, insisting that she has never even been to court: “All I know is that every once in awhile they bring me to the church, which is like the little devil’s home, and you sit there, and there’s a bunch of bullies just looking at you, and there’s the priest up at the top. Is he trying to bless you? I don’t need the blessings of ignorance. I don’t need a doctor of destruction. I need peace. I need my girlfriend.”

Her girlfriend, she says, is Gina Sindoni. “She doesn’t visit me anymore,” Spero adds sadly. “I don’t know why. Maybe she doesn’t love me anymore, but I don’t believe that. She always promised, ‘I’ll never leave you.’ She doesn’t realize that she kills me more every day by not being here.”

In the opinion of a psychiatrist who has examined Spero for the prosecution, her lawyer’s insistence that Spero appear for trial unmedicated is nonsense. “Criminal responsibility depends on her condition at the time of the act, so [how she appears] five years later is sort of irrelevant,” he says. “This isn’t good law, it’s not good psychiatry, it’s not in her interest.” Responds Colella: “He’s a doctor. If he were an attorney, he might view it a bit differently. I have to convince 12 laymen that she was insane. They want to see.”

The prosecutor understands Colella’s position. “I think he’s doing a great job defending her,” he says. The catch-22 situation, in which Spero has a right to be tried unmedicated but cannot be tried unmedicated, “is not anyone’s fault,” he observes. “The issue here is competence. I would not be in favor of any system that allowed us to go to trial with an incompetent defendant.” What about a system that would require Spero to take medication to become competent? “Maybe that’s the answer,” says Ziemian, “but that’s not the law.”

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