Original article no longer available
Updated January 15, 1999
Florida v. Victor Brancaccio
VERO BEACH, Fla. (Court TV) Forensic neuropsychologist Antoinette Appel, who has spent the last thirty years of her career studying brains, testified Thursday that Brancaccio was criminally insane at the time of the killing.
Appel said the combination of brain damage, mental illness, alcohol and Zoloft pushed Brancaccio over the edge and made it impossible for him to distinguish the difference between right and wrong or to appreciate consequences of his actions when he beat Mollie Frazier.
Prosecutors say Brancaccio beat Frazier to death in 1993 after she allegedly asked him to stop rapping vulgar lyrics on the street. Brancaccio, who had been released from a mental institution shortly before his encounter with Frazier, claims that he was involuntarily intoxicated on his prescribed medication, Zoloft, had prior organic brain damage, and was not responsible for his actions.
In 1995, Brancaccio was tried and convicted for the murder. However, a Florida appeals court overturned the conviction in 1997, ruling that the trial judge had improperly instructed the jury on the defendant’s involuntary intoxication defense.
Defense attorney Roy Black guided Appel through the chronology of Brancaccio’s life traumas. Appel discussed Brancaccio’s premature birth and near drowning that resulted in permanent brain damage. She testified about how he struggled through school and ranked only in the 4% percentile of all seventh graders.
Appel stated that Brancaccio began to exhibit behavioral problems in high school with truancy, tardiness and fights. All these things, she attributed to his frustration with his mental state.
Brancaccio began drinking at age 13 and became drunk for the first time at 15. By the time he was involuntarily hospitalized at New Horizons, he felt hopeless, suicidal and had a drinking problem, she said.
Appel called Zoloft the straw that pushed Brancaccio over the edge. She noted that once he was put on Zoloft, he became nervous, rude, hyper-verbal and quick to anger. According to hospital records, Brancaccio knew something was wrong and begged to stay at the hospital.
Appel then used her glasses and a Styrofoam cup to demonstrate how Zoloft affects nerve endings by inhibiting the absorption of serotonin into the nerve ending, thereby increasing the level of serotonin in the system.
While noting that Zoloft is helpful for many clinically depressed people, Appel stated that it had a dangerous reaction in Brancaccio’s system because of his pre-existing brain damage and because of his mental illness. She said he became obnoxious and out of control. Appel also stated that someone with Brancaccio’s mental condition is highly suggestible.
But prosecutor Lynn Park pointed out examples where Brancaccio performed at age level. In one test taken in the third grade he scored in the 43rd percentile; in another in the 86th percentile. Park also attempted to establish that Brancaccio’s poor academic performance was not only the result of moderate brain damage, but also the result of a hearing impairment and a lack of effort.
During cross examination, Park also confronted Appel with statements Brancaccio made to his doctor at Savanna hospital, prior to being put on Zoloft. Brancaccio had told his doctor that when he drank alcohol, he became violent, she said.
Park also addressed Brancaccio’s mental state prior to being prescribed Zoloft. Appel stated that although Brancaccio was mentally ill and brain damaged prior to taking the drug, he was not criminally insane.
Appel reiterated that Zoloft was the straw that pushed Brancaccio over the brink into criminal insanity. She stated that she believes he is currently criminally insane because he is still recovering from the effects and side effects of Zoloft.
At the end of cross examination, Park dramatically held up the plastic gun and demanded to know from Appel if she really believed Brancaccio did not know right from wrong when he pointed the gun at Mollie Frazier.
After Appel’s testimony, Brancaccio’s cousin, Patricia Bender, testified that in 1979 she rescued Brancaccio from a pond. She said that when she pulled him out of the water he was blue and lifeless and estimated that he was not breathing for at least five minutes. She said her mother, Pia DiDonna, attempted CPR until the ambulance arrived.
DiDonna testified that when Brancaccio returned from Savanna Hospital, she noticed that he was restless and angry all the time. On cross-examination, however, she admitted that she did not know that Brancaccio had been violent in the past.
Reported by Court TV’s Sharon Beaulaurier.
To view original article click here
Twice convicted of murder, Victor Brancaccio awaits new sentencing hearing — (TC Palm)
FORT PIERCE — Victor Brancaccio, the St. Lucie West man twice convicted of first-degree murder in the 1993 beating death of an 81-year-old widow, has been moved to the St. Lucie County Jail while he awaits a new sentencing hearing.
Now 39, Brancaccio had been at the Florida State Prison in Raiford for most of the past 22 years, serving two life sentences for the slaying of Mollie Mae Frazier when he was 16.
Frazier was taking an after-dinner walk when she chastised Brancaccio for singing along with a vulgar rap song.
Evidence presented at trial showed the Port St. Lucie High School dropout hid the woman’s body and spray-painted and burned the corpse later in an effort to hide his actions and erase fingerprints.
A Florida Supreme Court ruling in March 2015 said those serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles should be resentenced under guidelines that went into effect last year.
Brancaccio’s attorney, Richard Kibbey of Stuart, is seeking new sentencings for his client on both the first-degree murder and kidnapping convictions.
Two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 found that life sentences for juveniles violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in four cases on whether those U.S. Supreme Court decisions should apply retroactively after lower courts were divided.
Brancaccio’s previous request for a resentencing hearing, which was denied, had come before those U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
A Florida law passed in 2014 said a juvenile convicted of capital murder could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.
While Brancaccio was sentenced for first-degree murder to life with eligibility for parole after 25 years, the life sentence on his kidnapping conviction allows no parole.
Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler, who handles capital post-conviction cases in the 19th Juduicial Circuit, said the state has agreed Brancaccio is eligible for a new sentencing hearing on the kidnaping conviction.
Circuit Judge Robert Belanger, who denied Kibbey’s motion last fall to remove him from the case, has not yet scheduled that new sentencing hearing because the question of whether Brancaccio will also get a new sentencing hearing on the first-degree murder conviction has not been settled.
That will be determined by the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on a similar appeal in the case of Angelo Atwell from West Palm Beach.
Butler said the state high court’s decision could be forthcoming any week now.
Meanwhile, Kibbey has filed a motion asking Belanger to appoint a forensic psychologist who would re-examine Brancaccio and his record both before the current life sentences were imposed and his behavior in prison since, which Kibbey described as “relatively clean.”
Kibbey also wants Belanger to appoint investigators to assist the psychologist in obtaining medical and psychological records from Brancaccio’s childhood.
Butler said he doesn’t oppose those motions, but it will be up to the state’s Justice Administration Commission to decide how much it is willing to pay for Brancaccio’s defense.
See also trial transcript click here