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Suspect in 7 bank robberies gambles with trial

The massive search for Steven Aitken in Pinellas County in 2003 got plenty of headlines and wound up on the television show America's Most Wanted.

Seven times that year, Aitken moseyed into a bank, vaulted over counters, pointed a gun at tellers' heads and, in one stickup, fired shots, police said.

Aitken dodged detectives using stolen vehicles for nine months. He was finally caught hiding out at a Daytona Beach motel.

Days after his arrest, Aitken demanded that Pinellas jail officials allow him to hold a news conference, where he admitted he robbed seven banks.

More than a year after the robberies put the community on edge, Aitken is again up to the unorthodox: he now plans to represent himself in court and use an insanity defense.

"I am a mentally ill person and have been so for 14 years now, diagnosed and documented," Aitken said Tuesday during a short telephone interview from the Pinellas County Jail. He described his insanity defense as "iron-clad solid."

Aitken, 38, declined to elaborate on his mental condition during the interview, but in a motion he filed with the court in November, he claims to suffer from "paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, narcissitic personality disorder, delusions (and) hallucinations."

Aitken began filing motions on his behalf in the weeks after his arrest, including requests to represent himself.

A judge ruled him incompetent to defend himself in December 2003. But this past October, Aitken's motion to defend himself was granted. St. Petersburg lawyer Anthony Clifton was appointed as a standby attorney.

Aitken said Tuesday he isn't receiving the medication he needs at the jail. He also said, "I'm not in any condition to represent myself," though he claimed later in the same interview to have never said that.

The insanity defense is rarely used, though it has been proposed recently in another high-profile Tampa Bay area case. Debra Lafave, the suspended Greco Middle School teacher accused of having sex with a 14-year-old student, will claim she was insane at the time of the alleged encounters, her attorney announced in November.

"It's extraordinarily rare and even more rarely successful," professor Robert Batey of the Stetson University College of Law said of the insanity defense. "Most defense attorneys will say an insanity defense is a defense of last resort."

To prove insanity, Aitken must convince jurors that he either did not know the nature of his acts or understand that what he was doing was wrong; and that this was because of a mental disease.

Though prosecutors still would present evidence at trial, the burden of proof would essentially shift to the defense, which must present "clear and convincing" evidence of insanity, Batey said.

"The burden of proof is definitely on the defendant," he said. "It is a very high burden of persuasion."

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, said Aitken shrewdly planned the bank stickups and getaways, which shows he knew what he was doing was wrong.

"There was a lot of thought put into how the crime would be committed," Bartlett said. "That's totally inconsistent from someone who didn't know right from wrong.

"His actions are somewhat bizarre, but it doesn't make him legally insane," Bartlett added. "There's a lot of people who come through the system that have screws loose, but it doesn't make them legally insane."

Aitken faces life in prison if convicted.

If he were found not guilty by reason of insanity, Aitken most likely would be committed to a state institution. If doctors later determined his mental state was appropriate for release, a judge could conceivably let him go.

Defendants relying on an insanity defense usually summon psychologists and experts who can testify to their mental state at the time of the crimes. In a court motion, Aitken has listed several psychologists he intends to call to testify.

Batey said the combination of an insanity defense with Aitken defending himself could help or hurt him, depending on how a jury perceives him.

"By representing himself, this may give the jury the opportunity to judge his current mental state," Batey said. "The better of a job he does representing himself, the more he could hurt his argument that he was insane at the time of the commission of the crime, so there is the potential of representing himself working against him. The juror may think, "If he's smart enough to be representing himself this well, then he must have been sane at the time of the commission of the crime.' "

Then again, if Aitken bumbles or appears unstable in the courtroom, that could help him.

"It's insane to represent yourself in this situation," Batey said. "But then again, maybe that's his point."