Zander had mental illness, says no-contest plea agreement
DEER LODGE - A North Dakota man pleaded no contest Thursday in Powell County District Court to a charge he murdered a Spokane man last June at a rest area near Gold Creek.
Shortly after the murder, Douglas Allan Zander said he shot the 47-year-old victim because he was black. Zander is white.
But in the plea agreement worked out with state prosecutors, Zander admits only to being mentally ill.
In his "nolo contendere" plea Zander, 27, of Mandan, acknowledged there was "a factual basis to support" the state's charge that he "did in fact shoot David Solomon in the chest with a rifle on June 29, 1999, at the Gold Creek eastbound rest area in Powell County."
By entering a plea of no contest, Zander neither admitted nor denied the allegations against him but acknowledged he can be sentenced for the charge of deliberate homicide as though he had pleaded guilty.
The plea agreement held also that the state agrees that at the time of the murder Zander "suffered from a mental disease which affected his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct." The agreement specified, however, that in spite of any mental illness, Zander "had the capacity to act with purpose or knowledge" when he committed the crime.
Solomon's family was consulted about the plea agreement. His wife and young son witnessed the killing.
District Court Judge Ted Mizner said he will review the mental health evaluations of Zander conducted by three professionals - one of them hired by the state - to determine whether the plea agreement is appropriate. The judge told Zander he could withdraw his no-contest plea if Mizner rejects the plea agreement. If the agreement is accepted, the next step will be sentencing. If not, the case likely will proceed to trial.
Zander, who has been held in the Powell County jail since his arrest in Helena shortly after the shooting, had been scheduled to go on trial Monday on the deliberate homicide charge. He appeared in court Thursday with his attorney, Wendy Holton of Helena. Dressed in a plaid shirt, tie and black pants, Zander responded quietly and often haltingly when Mizner asked him whether he understood the substance of Thursday's hearing and specific provisions of the plea agreement.
"I believe I do," said Zander in response to one such query from Mizner.
After the hearing, Assistant Attorney General John P. Connor Jr. said Zander's apparent mental illness led the state to conclude the plea agreement was the best and most efficient resolution for the case.
Even if the case had gone to trial and a jury had convicted Zander, "we would essentially end up in the same status we are now," said Connor, with Zander's reported mental illness a significant factor affecting sentencing.
Powell County Attorney Chris Miller agreed.
"It's a good plea," said Miller. "And although the plea agreement did not include any specific recommendation for a sentence, I've got every confidence that Judge Mizner will make an appropriate sentence."
According to state statute, if the court concludes Zander did suffer from a mental disease or defect at the time of the murder, he will be "committed to the custody of the director of the (Montana) Department of Public Health and Human Services to be placed … in an appropriate correctional or mental health facility." The sentence will be for a definite period of time, not to exceed the maximum sentence of 100 years for deliberate homicide. The state has agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Neither Connor nor Holton would reveal Zander's psychiatric diagnosis Thursday. In a brief interview after the hearing, Holton said she believes Zander's mental illness and not racism led to the shooting.
"The most important thing about this plea agreement is that it recognizes that mental illness and not racial hate was the cause of the tragedy," said Holton.
Connor disagreed, saying, "I don't think that's an accurate characterization." Connor noted that Zander's own statements after his arrest suggested he shot Solomon because, "in effect, he was black," according to court documents.
In turn, Holton said Zander's alleged admission that he was influenced or motivated by Solomon's race was offered in response to what she described as "leading questions" from investigators immediately after Zander's arrest. Those questions came, she said, before authorities fully understood the role or effect of Zander's apparent mental illness.
Connor said he was reluctant to guess Zander's psychological motivation for the crime - saying such speculation is the domain of psychiatrists - or to attempt to tag it with a definitive label.
"I don't think any purpose would be served at this point by trying to characterize this as a hate crime," he said.
Prosecutors have alleged from the beginning that Zander shot and killed Solomon with a single gunshot wound to the chest from an 8mm Mauser rifle.
Solomon's wife, Kathleen, who is white, and son Andre, then 4, witnessed the shooting, which occurred around 7:50 p.m. June 29 at the Gold Creek rest area off Interstate 90. Authorities believe Solomon's death was nearly instantaneous. The Solomon family was moving from Spokane to Arizona when the killing occurred.
Police arrested Zander around 9 p.m. that same night in Helena after stopping his Ford Mustang, which matched the description provided by murder scene witnesses of a red hatchback with North Dakota plates that fled the scene. Police reportedly recovered an 8mm rifle from Zander's car. According to court documents, Zander voluntarily talked to investigators and admitted he'd shot Solomon. Zander told police he'd never met Solomon before their chance encounter at the rest stop. And Zander's statements reportedly led prosecutors to believe the murder was racially motivated.
Connor told the court Thursday that he'd consulted with the Solomon family about the plea agreement.
"We discussed all of this business at length. They were OK with all of this," said Connor. "They are very good people, reasonable people. They are in agreement with going forward (with the plea agreement)."
During a telephone interview Thursday evening, David Solomon's son Adam, 19, of Spokane, concurred with Connor's assessment.
"Yes, that would be accurate," he said. "I feel that John Connor has done a very professional job."
Adam Solomon said the family has experienced some difficult times since the murder.
"It's been really hard on us, actually," he said. "It's been hardest on my mother, I think. We're doing OK, but we have our hard times."
On Thursday, Holton said the "Zander family and Doug wish to express their deepest sympathy to the Solomon family and they have asked me to do that."
Informed of Holton's remarks, Solomon said he had no immediate comment.
Duncan Adams is a reporter for the Montana Standard in Butte.