by Lee Kamlet, Dateline producer
Just before Labor Day last summer, I flew to Albuquerque NM, expecting to attend a court hearing which might shed some light on one of the worst crime sprees in the city's history.
Five people had been killed on the same day in August 2005. The first shooting was in the early morning. A state transportation department worker was killed outside of a maintenance garage on the edge of town. Later that afternoon, on the opposite side of the city, two young men were killed at the motorcycle shop where they worked. Then in the late evening, two police officers who were on what police say was a routine assignment, were killed in a gun battle just on the outskirts of downtown.
The killings seemed random. There was no obvious link between the victims, their locations, or the circumstances under which they were killed. Police were busy all day chasing down plausible suspects. Then, shortly after the two officers were shot, police say they put together the clues they had been assembling from the various crimes scenes, and discovered that the shootings were linked after all, committed by one man. His name is John Hyde.
As a young man, Hyde was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and paranoia. For years, he struggled to cope with the inner demons that haunted him. He tried various medications that seemed to work for a short time. But more often than not, he said the side effects from the medication were worse that the ailments. About 10 months before the shootings, his behavior changed. He became convinced that he had been misdiagnosed. He began wearing black nail polish, stopped grooming himself, and began talking about Satan. Then on August 18, 2005, police say John Hyde snapped, and killed 5 people.
The haunting question of course is, why? Why would a man who had no history of violence suddenly kill five people?
Which brings us back to the hearing last summer. Since his arrest, John Hyde has been ruled incompetent to stand trial, and has been held in the New Mexico State Hospital. The hearing was called to determine if his condition had changed. As long as he remains incompetent, he cannot be tried for the murders. And to state the obvious, if he can't be tried, he can't be punished if he's found guilty. And there are many people in Albuquerque who want him to get the ultimate punishment--the death penalty.
The district attorney in Albuquerque had planned to use the hearing as a forum to call dozens of witnesses, in order to get their testimony on the record about the events of that awful day. The prosecution's fear is that the longer John Hyde remains in the hospital, witness will forget what they know, or worse yet, the witnesses themselves will die, and their testimony will be lost.
Just before the hearing was to begin, Hyde's attorneys filed an emergency motion to stop it. The hearing, they said, was unnecessary. They conceded the state could prove that Hyde is a danger to himself and to the community. Beyond that, they say that the competency hearing would have become a media spectacle and damaged John Hyde's chances for a fair trial, if one is ever held.
The question about the need for the hearing is now before the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which has given no sign when it will reach a decision. And even if the court rules soon, its decision is almost certain to be appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court. As long as the question remains in the court system, Hyde himself will remain in the state hospital.
The situation has left the city divided. Some people told me they are angry that John Hyde has not had to account for his actions. Others said that, as horrified as they are about the events of that day, John Hyde deserves the full protection of the law, like any other citizen.
Meanwhile, John Hyde remains the only person who really knows for certain why he did what he did that day.