August 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Defense Says Mental Illness Drove Teen To Kill Trial Begins For Boy Accused Of Suffocating His Sister And Her Friend In Walla Walla

Aviva L. Brandt Associated Press

There’s no question that a College Place, Wash., teenager suffocated his sister and her best friend by putting plastic bags over their heads, the boy’s defense lawyer told a jury.

Daniel Betournay, 15, has admitted he tied the two girls’ wrists and ankles with duct tape and then fixed plastic bags over their heads.

His trial on two counts of first-degree murder in the Dec. 14 deaths of his sister April and her friend Beth Garbe, both 14, began Monday in Walla Walla Superior Court.

“We’re not here to have 12 people decide whether this was an awful thing, a tragedy,” William McCool said. “The only thing we’re here to do is figure out what was going on in Danny Betournay’s head on Dec. 14.”

McCool contends Betournay suffers from a mental illness known as schizo-affective disorder, which is characterized by delusions, major depression and a lack of emotion.

Betournay’s problems began when, at 18 months of age, he and his sister April were removed from their natural parents’ home and he was “taken away in a car while pounding on the window screaming, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ ” McCool said.

The problems have worsened, he said, and include what McCool described as bizarre delusions.

“Indeed, Danny did suffer from delusions. Some of them you’re going to shake your head and not be able to believe someone could have these in their head,” McCool told the jury.

Betournay sat motionless throughout the day, his hands in his lap and eyes staring straight forward except for a couple instances when he whispered to his lawyer.

But Walla Walla Prosecutor Jim Nagle said Betournay was a normal child before the slayings.

“The evidence will show that prior to Dec. 14, Daniel Betournay went to school every day, participated in activities with friends and family, was a Boy Scout, built model rockets, dressed himself, fed himself, walked and talked normally and did everything an every-day, normal person his age did,” Nagle said.

“The evidence will show that any diagnoses of a mental problem had absolutely nothing to do with his ability to know that what he did was wrong or his ability to plan the deaths of April and Beth, premeditate their deaths and execute his plans.”

McCool began to paint a picture of Betournay as a troubled teen who desperately wanted to impress his father but feared his suspicions that he might be homosexual would lead to alienation from his devout Christian family.

The court-appointed defense lawyer brought up a multitude of other quirks - including that the boy wore white oxford shirts buttoned to the neck in third and fourth grade - but did not explain what the significance might be.

He said Betournay is articulate despite a slightly below average IQ.

“If Danny testifies, you will be amazed at the level and quality of his speech,” McCool said. “And yet if asked certain questions, the right questions, you will see many of the thought processes that go through his head don’t match the articulateness.”

McCool contends his client could not have premeditated the slayings because he is incapable of rational planning.

“What goes on inside of Danny’s mind even now, and what went on inside of Danny’s head on Dec. 14, is not logical, does not truly consider the consequences,” McCool said.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email