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Gallaudet Murders Arrest

An Arrest at Last - and a Community Relieved

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Updated September 10, 2010

February 14, 2001

Last night, an entire community of deaf and hard of hearing people breathed a sigh of relief. An arrest was announced in the murders of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner. Joseph Mesa, a fellow student, confessed to the police and was arrested for the murders.

What are the known facts, briefly, as reported by the media?

  • Mesa had lived in the Cogswell dormitory at the time of the Plunkett murder and was living in nearby Krug Hall at the time of the Varner murder
  • Mesa had murdered both in robbery attempts
  • Mesa had written a check to himself on one of Varner's checks
  • Mesa had used a knife
  • Mesa had sustained cuts on his hands in a fight with the victim
  • Bloody clothing was found in Mesa's room
  • Thomas Minch, who was prematurely arrested earlier, has been completely cleared and is totally innocent
Could another murder case happen again? Hopefully with the increased security and awareness at Gallaudet it will not - but there is no guarantee. Mesa's parents are in disbelief that their son could do something like this, and indeed, Joseph Mesa looked and acted like any other young college boy, with a loving family, a girlfriend, and the ironic goal of becoming a guidance counselor.

***
(The following was written when his trial began)

The trial of Joseph Mesa, the deaf student who killed two fellow students at Gallaudet University in the 2000-2001 academic year was held the following year. Mesa had pursued an insanity defense, hoping to be found innocent by reason of insanity. The fact that Mesa killed these students was not in dispute; what was at stake is whether they were killed by someone with a criminal mind bent on obtaining money, or someone who is mentally ill.

Opening

In the trial's opening, the defense attorney, Ferris Bond claimed:
  • Mesa has severe mental illness that drove him to kill, and he was unable to stop.

The prosecution, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Collins and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeb Boasberg, stated their intent to prove that Mesa was NOT mentally ill and had in fact deliberately planned the murders of Plunkett and Varner:

  • First he planned to kill Plunkett, who had cerebral palsy. In preparation for that robbery and killing, he actually tested his ability to go into Plunkett's room without being seen. Plunket was killed September 27, 2001 by being beaten with a chair.
  • Mesa had even considered and rejected the idea of killing his own roommate.
  • He selected Varner as his next victim and went to his room with a knife, intending to kill Varner as part of the robbery.
As the trial continues, the jury will get to see Mesa's videotaped statement of confession, and Mesa's girlfriend Melani de Guzman is expected to testify. Mesa had reportedly asked de Guzman to help him through perjury (lying in court).

5/8

  • Mesa claimed a "devil" told him to steal.
  • When his funds ran out again after the murder of Plunkett, he considered murdering Varner to get more money.
5/9
  • Mesa's girlfriend, Melani de Guzman, testified that he had had cuts on his hand and head right after killing Benjamin Varner; Mesa lied and said he had been wrestling. He also asked de Guzman to throw out letters he had written to her, and in one letter said that he would try to claim insanity.
5/15
  • Mesa testified that he had "seen" black hands that told him to kill. Plus, he stated that he had been unable to stop himself, and had purposely left "clues" hoping that he would be caught and stopped from killing any more.
5/18
  • The defense psychologist said Mesa is mentally ill but can tell right from wrong. Psychologists called by the prosecution said Mesa's behavior fits that of a serial killer and that he has been faking insanity.
5/21

The Verdict: GUILTY.

It took the jury just three hours to decide. Guilty on two counts, first degree murder. Sentencing is in July. If he had been found innocent by reason of insanity, he would still not have gone free - he would have been confined to a mental institution.

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