Joseph Bova II testified this morning that voices told him to kill Zuheili Roman Rosado in February 2013 because she was “evil,” she could kill with her eyes, and he would be a “hero,” protecting the citizens of Flagler County from her. It was only years later, he said, that he realized that what he’d done was wrong.
By then, he was working on his insanity defense in court.
“The voices kept talking to me about it and they ended up saying I had to kill her to save all the people of Flagler County that were going to die,” Bova said on the stand in the fifth day of his murder trial. The voices scared him. He cried. He felt “tortured.”
“It took me a while before they convinced me to shoot her,” he said. “They made me think it was the right thing to do because she was the devil.”
But the voices also told him not to tell the police about it, before or after the killing, though immediately after the murder he was hungry and had a bite to eat before going home.
He also testified that he hadn’t slept in seven years, and that it was only recently, in a state psychiatric hospital, that he realized what he had done was wrong. But at the time of shooting the 32-year-old single mother of six, he told the jury that he had no concept of right and wrong. That he was “insane,” “confused,” “scared.”
“Did you want to kill the store clerk?” Assistant Public Defender Matt Phillips (who did not name Rosado the several times he referred to her), asked Bova.
“No, I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I just wanted to go back to sleep,” Bova said. But he was responding to the voices. “I thought I was doing the right thing.” The only time he spoke directly to the jury was to ask the eight women and two men (including two alternates) to find him not guilty by reason of insanity, “so I can go back to the state hospital.” There, he told them, he can be medicated and maybe get some sleep.
Bova’s 37-minute testimony was straight-forward. It was the most anticipated of the trial, six and a half years after the killing. The courtroom gallery had filled with dozens of spectators beyond the Bova and Rosado families, including many from the State Attorney’s Office, other law enforcement personnel and lay spectators. Bova took the witness stand just before the jury walked in. He was the second witness of the morning. By now the jury has gotten used to his face’s distortions–the puffed out eyes, the self-mutilated nose, the laconic expression. It had also heard him in a two-hour interview with cops dating back to days before his arrest. It hadn’t seen him speak at length, in person, just a few feet from the jury box.
His look and subdued demeanor aside, he didn’t say anything surprising or act in any way that suggested anything more than a bit of strangeness. But that’s not unusual in defendants facing grave charges. The reasoned and rational don’t often find themselves defending against a first-degree, pre-meditated murder charge, or explaining it away to a jury with an improbable defense.
Defense attorneys don’t usually like their client to testify. It’s too risky. It opens the door to prosecutors to demolish the defendant’s credibility. It can also seem like a hail Mary, a last hope in a defense that hasn’t quite made the case otherwise. But Bova insisted he wanted to testify.
He probably did not help his case–not just because he sounded too sure of his strategy, not just because he came off a bit manipulative in his pleadings with the jury about his “insanity,” not just because the convenience of what he remembered and what he didn’t, and the even sharper difference between his own responsibility and what the voices told him to do (which came off as opportunistic offloading). But because Bova’s strategy tripped all over itself at the hands of Assistant State Attorney Mark Johnson’s 39-minute cross-examination.
It was not obvious at first–least of all to Bova, who didn’t see it coming until it was too late. But Johnson, adopting Bova’s own nearly laconic demeanor so as not to spook him, keeping him comfortable as he self-destructed, asked his questions as if he were a spider weaving a web around an unsuspecting prey.
By the end, Johnson had left the jury with at least two clear take-aways, using Bova’s own words against him–without ever questioning Bova’s veracity about the voices. In other words, Johnson conceded Bova’s most powerful defense: that he was hearing voices. But he also showed that Bova was not quite the slave of those voices he was making himself out to be to the jury.
First, Johnson made it very clear, as Bova did, that Bova had for weeks resisted the voices: he knew that what the voices were telling him to do was wrong. Bova had said as much to his own attorney on direct examination when he said he “didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
The voices, Johnson told him,. “Were pressuring you to do it, right?”
“Exactly,” Bova said, falling in the prosecutor’s trap.
“And the reason they were pressuring you is because you didn’t want to do it, right?”
“The voices just started pressuring me,” Bova said, and after two months, he gave in. “I come from good people, sir,” he said, “and these voices, they got the better of me.” And he went further: “In my brain, I thought that was wrong.”
Bova had just said before the jury that for weeks, for months, he knew right from wrong. He merely gave in.
“Yes or no, you want this jury to believe that you didn’t know right from wrong, right?” Johnson asked him.
“That’s the truth, sir.”
A second take-away was a weave of a different sort–one that connected dots into a much clearer picture of disparate elements the jury had been hearing about for three days, but that suddenly became recognizable as a very possible, rational story.
The jury had heard through various witnesses how Bova had re-painted the truck he’d used to drive to the Mobil station where Rosado worked, how he’d sold it, how he’d fled his Palm Pointe apartment in Bunnell (ironically, within sight, across the street from the courthouse), how he’d then had a nose job, how he started living out of his car, even though he never had done so before, even though he had an apartment and an indulgent landlord who had no plans to kick him out. The jury had heard all those elements as separate, disconnected points in Bova’s story in the weeks before and the months after Rosado’s murder. Johnson implicitly connected them (nothing in his cross-examination was explicit, making Bova take that step himself in his own words).
The prosecutor made Bova look like a man planning a murder then going on the run and hiding his tracks: the murder itself was planned down to the dissimulated path Bova took behind the convenience store, and the way he waited until there were no customers inside to go in and assassinate Rosado. Bova attributed the nose job to wanting to look better for the girls–and because the voices told him to do it, too.
“It was the voices that told me to get a nose job,” he said.
“Ah, the voices, the voices,” Johnson said toward the end of his cross, when he was letting his disbelief show a bit more. “So which is it, was it the voices, or the girls?”
Bova had testified that the voices had told him he’d be a hero if he shot Rosado. “So you don’t go out and tell the police you did a service,” Johnson said. “You’re a hero, but you didn’t run out and hold a press conference or tell anybody you did this wonderful act on behalf of the citizens of Flagler County, did you.”
Johnson described him going “back into the shadows” the same way he’d gone to the convenience store, back to his truck.
“You went and got something to eat, right?”
“Because you were hungry.”
“Did you think about Zuheili Rosado when you went to get something to eat?”
“I’m not sure, I was hearing the voices.”
“Did you think about Zuheili Rosado while you were eating?”
“I’m not sure.”
Phillips had a chance to question Bova again about what he’d told Johnson, but instead of attempting to disconnect the dots or drill holes in Johnson’s web, Phillips focused only on Bova’s problems remembering details, his occasional confusion, his lack of sleep, his worry of telling his parents about the voices for fear of ending up in a psychiatric hospital (the hospital to which he is now imploring the jury to send him).
In the end, Bova’s insanity defense rested on the word of one man: Bova himself. He was insane at the time of the shooting because he said he was. Not a single defense witness could say he was.
Not even Joe Sesta, the forensic psychologist the defense hired as an expert witness to testify to Bova’s mental profile. The hour-long testimony was more unintentionally entertaining than substantive: Sesta is well-heeled from hundreds of testimonies at slinging red herrings at prosecutors, throwing them off stride. He clearly enjoys the verbal brawl (it earned him between $100,000 and $200,000 last year, he said).
But it was more show than evidence. By the end of his duel-like testimony at the hands of Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis–and after briefly getting the better of Lewis–Sesta had to concede that he’d spent very little time with Bova, had only interviewed Bova’s mother, knew of just one incident of Bova’s delusions since the murder (and that one Bova came up with after he opted for an insanity defense), and had to “assume” that Bova had been delusional before based on what many other doctors had prescribed him. “I don’t believe they pass out psychotic medication for no reason,” Sesta told Lewis (though he did not say that the sort of medications Bova was prescribed can also treat many symptoms that have nothing to do with delusions).
Before Lewis, Assistant Public Defender Joshua Mosley led a less agitated Sesta through the Bova history he’d gleaned from various reports. But Sesta’s medical judgments about schizophrenia were kept to generalizations about the disease, out of which he extrapolated certain assumptions about Bova. “I’m sure Joseph is better than he was on the street, when he wasn’t medicated, but he’s better, not well,” Sesta said.
He wasn’t telling the jury anything new.
He then described Bova as “irrational, irrelevant not goal directed, not reality based,” and as “psychotic.”
“Can psychotic people have forethought, though?” Mosley asked him. (The defense has been trying to counter the prosecution’s charge that the murder was pre-meditated.)
“Oh, sure,” Sesta said. “They’re going to plan, they’re going to strategize.” Sesta then pointed to the John Hinkley assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan in 1981. (Hinkley, who was obsessed with Jodie Foster, the actress, shot Reagan to impress her.) It took considerable planning on his part. “Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity,” Sesta said. “That’s clearly within the realm of what schizophrenics can do.”
It was a clever way to tap into an almost certain familiar reference point for the jury. But it was also a half truth, and one that depends on the jury not knowing the rest of the story: Until Hinkley’s assassination attempt, federal and most state laws required prosecutors to prove that a defendant was not insane, beyond a reasonable doubt. The Hinkley verdict changed that: federal and many state laws, including Florida’s, have shifted the burden of proof to the defense, which must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was insane at the time of the alleged crime.
It is almost certain that the prosecution will fill in that blank when the trial reconvenes for a rebuttal witness by the state and closing arguments Monday morning.
Meanwhile, Lewis had one last go at Sesta.
“You can’t tell us on the date of the murder what his psychological state was or his mental state was?” Lewis asked him.
“I can’t tell you that because I wasn’t asked to look at that,” Sesta said.
Moments later: “But you never evaluated him for insanity, did you?”
“No, that’s not what I was asked to do,” Sesta said.
“So as you sit here today you can’t tell this jury he was insane at the time of the crime.”
“That’s absolutely correct.”