Not guilty and, finally, moving on
Not guilty and, finally, moving on
When the Mario Alberto Lopez insanity plea murder trial ended in a mistrial last month, it brought back memories of the Juanita Maxwell murder trial 25 years ago. Lopez, 15, of Cape Coral was charged with stabbing his 15-year-old friend Joey Martins 151 times after they squabbled over a video game in 2002.
Maxwell, then 25, of Fort Myers was charged with killing Inez Kelly in 1979. Maxwell was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity in 1981 by Lee County Circuit Judge Hugh Starnes, the first such ruling in Florida history.
ABOUT THE VIDEO CLIPS IN THIS STORY
WEVU-TV taped the Juanita Maxwell murder trial in 1981. WEVU-TV gave a copy of the tape to Lee County Judge John Dommerich, who prosecuted Maxwell as an assistant state attorney for the 20th Circuit state attorney's office. Dommerich made the tape available to The News-Press/news-press.com.
Download: Video of Juanita Maxwell in alternate personality, "Wanda Weston"
Editor's note: Sunday's column examined the bizarre, sensational and unprecedented 1981 murder trial of Fort Myers native Juanita Maxwell. Today, three participants in that trial reflect on the aftermath.
Juanita Maxwell, ruled not guilty by reason of insanity in a landmark murder trial 25 years ago, doesn't want folks to get the wrong impression.
Maxwell displays her nursing assistant's certificate in 1995. She lost her certification as part of a state law to protect the elderly.
"The insanity ruling helped me, but I want people to know I didn't come away without suffering," says Maxwell, 50. "How in the hell do you get off when you spent eight years in a mental center like Chattahoochee? I paid a huge price."
She lost custody of three young children, who went to live with a relative in Ohio.
She spent three years in Pinellas County Jail for robbing two banks in St. Petersburg.
She lives with the stigma of killing a woman in 1979.
"I'll never forget March 13, 1979. Never," Maxwell says. "It's always on my mind. I have a stain on me I can't get off."
Maxwell, born and raised in Fort Myers, says accepting her multiple personality disorder was a difficult adjustment.
"When they told me I had all these different parts, I thought they were crazy," she says. "It's hard to tell a person who's crazy that they're crazy because they won't believe you."
Maxwell worked as a maid at Palmland Motel on First Street in Fort Myers when she was charged with the brutal slaying of motel resident Inez Kelly, 73. Two years later, she went to trial using an insanity defense.
During testimony, state mental health therapist Alan Klein induced Maxwell's alter ego, Wanda Weston, to come out.
"That was one of the most startling pieces of courtroom drama I have ever observed," says Lee Circuit Judge Hugh Starnes, who presided in the 1981 bench trial.
Weston, Maxwell's opposite to the extreme, unabashedly detailed her killing of Kelly, whose crime was not returning a pen to the meek maid.
"I killed her. She didn't have any business treating Juanita the way she did," Weston said.
The contrasting Maxwell-Weston testimony convinced Starnes to rule the maid insane.
"I believe I commented in my ruling that it was a true case of multiple personality," he says. "Or this would have to be an academy award performance by a poor housekeeper with an eighth-grade education."
Maxwell sobbed and thanked Starnes for sparing her, but the break was just a first step toward rehabilitation.
"I don't know if I ever was insane, but I had those different parts of myself that were very much out of whack," she says.
Starnes recommitted Maxwell to Chattahoochee, a state mental health center, until she was deemed fit for society.
"Even people in Chatty were not very understanding," Maxwell says. "I had a therapist say to me: 'Do you realize you killed a white woman?' "
After Maxwell was released in 1987, she moved to St. Petersburg, but Weston again caused her trouble a year later when she robbed two banks.
Lee County Judge John Dommerich, who prosecuted Maxwell as an assistant state attorney, says the bank heists raised a flag she couldn't control her personalities.
"She'd already killed someone. That was a given," he says. "She'd been in a state mental institution for eight years. Once she is deemed cured, or safe to release, she's out robbing banks. Obviously, she's a danger."
Facing the same Juanita-Wanda conflict in St. Petersburg, Maxwell found lifesavers in public defender Robert Dillinger, counselor Rita Bruno and Pinellas Circuit Judge Grable Stoutamire.
Dillinger, now head of the Pinellas public defender's office, didn't bill Maxwell for his work. Bruno helped Maxwell understand her eight personalities. Both became Maxwell's friends.
"At the time, she didn't have control," Bruno says. "I'm sure she does now."
Maxwell says to stay in synch she receives counseling from Carol Parker in Tampa, whom she calls a godsend.
Stoutamire allowed Maxwell to plead no contest to the robberies, gave her credit for three years' served and put her on administrative probation for life, a slap-on-the-wrist condition.
Maxwell also helped herself after getting a second break.
In 1991, she married Badr El-Amin, a religious man who helps her over life's bumps.
Maxwell also earned a certificate as a nursing assistant and worked in assisting living facilities until 1995.
"I was a good nursing assistant," she says. "People would request my services, but my past caught up with me and cost me jobs."
A new law targeting nursing-home abusers said Maxwell's robbery convictions prevent her from work in the homes.
That was nearly 11 years ago. It knocked her for a loop, but didn't keep her down.
"I took classes at St. Pete College," Maxwell says. "Who in a million years thought I could do something like that?
"My husband, a super salesman, and I are talking about starting our own business."
Maxwell says her biggest challenge is repairing relationships with her daughters in St. Petersburg and five siblings who live in Fort Myers.
"My granddaughters think I walk on water," she says. "But I didn't see my daughters for 18 years. I'm just now getting things right with my family."
Starnes, the judge who made a courageous and unprecedented Florida ruling, says Maxwell's success is gratifying, although the notion this was the first not guilty by way of insanity in the state never occurred to him.
"You always hope that things turn out well for someone who is mentally ill," says Starnes, a judge in Lee's Mental Health Court. "You hope that they get good treatment and that they respond to the treatment, and can live a productive life."
Maxwell says she is doing just that along with her seven other personalities -- including the unpredictable Wanda.
"We don't suppress Wanda," she says. "We have meetings. We talk about what's good for all of us, as a group. We're cool.
"And I'm doing quite well."
Sam Cook's column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Call 335-0384 or fax 334-0708.
More articles about Juanita:
Woman with Two Identities Absolved of Murder
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