Saturday, May 5, 2001

Shown here at trial, Michael Lawrence, accused in the murder
of Melchor Tabag, listened March 28 as his mother, Carolyn
Lawrence, answered questions on the stand.

Closing arguments
heard in ’99 death
of salesman

Defense attorneys say
Michael Lawrence
suffered delusions

By Debra Barayuga

Was Michael Lawrence legally insane when he struck Melchor Tabag in the back of the head with a hammer, stabbed him, took the body to an isolated area and dismembered it before disposing of the parts at a nearby refuse dump?

That is the question Circuit Judge Virginia Crandall will be wrestling with in the next few weeks in determining whether Lawrence will be sentenced to life in prison or an indefinite stay at the Hawaii State Hospital.

Lawrence, 26, is charged with second-degree murder in the March 1999 slaying of Tabag, 41, a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Attorneys yesterday gave closing arguments in the jury-waived trial that began March 28, nearly two years to the day when Tabag was last seen lying on the patio of Lawrence's home and never heard from again.

The defense does not dispute that Lawrence killed and dismembered Tabag before disposing of the body. But they contend he was insane at the time and therefore did not know what he was doing was wrong or could not conform his conduct according to law.

The defense maintained Lawrence suffered from a fixed belief that his mission was to kill and chop up people and that he heard voices commanding him to do so.

Prosecutors say that even if Lawrence suffered from delusions and hallucinations, he still knew that what he was doing at the time was wrong.

Lawrence's actions on March 27, 1999, as he described them to examining doctors, show that he killed Tabag intentionally and knowingly, said Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Takata.

Lawrence struck Tabag twice in the back of the head with a hammer, but also stabbed him twice with a knife because the hammer had not done the job, Takata said.

When Lawrence drove from his parents' house with Tabag in the trunk, he took along with him a bone saw and knife and two empty dog food bags because he knew what he was planning to do with the body, he said.

Lawrence drove to an isolated area because he did not want to be seen, and he removed Tabag's clothes to make his job easier. Testimony at trial indicated Lawrence took only 15 minutes to dismember the body.

Takata said Lawrence showed a lot of control as he dismembered Tabag along the joints and segregated the body parts and clothing in separate bags before disposing of the bags into a large trailer at a Haleiwa dump.

Lawrence then took an 11-hour trip around the island in Tabag's car, stopping for lunch in Wahiawa and later at Circuit City to purchase a CD player, some CDs and batteries.

Lawrence's purchases at Circuit City cost $60.36, and he handed the cashier $100.36 because he wanted $40 back and not a handful of change -- showing a higher level of thinking, Takata said.

Lying to his mother that Tabag had tripped and hit his head just moments after he had struck Tabag in the back of the head with a hammer "blows away any insanity defense," Takata said, because it shows he knew what he had done was wrong and was trying to come up with an excuse.

Telling her to mop up the blood and later disposing of the body also shows he knew what he had done and had to get rid of the evidence, Takata said.

Lawrence told one of the court-appointed doctors that it was wrong to hit or hurt people, "but this is not wrong 'cause this is my mission," Takata said.

The state believes Lawrence killed Tabag because the salesman was everything he was not.

Lawrence had dropped out of tech school, lost his girlfriend, could not hold on to a job and had totaled his car, leaving him without a mode of transportation, Takata said.

Tabag had a job, was moving up in life and had a car.

Lawrence's anger over his failures festered, and he unleashed it on Tabag, Takata said.

"He hit Mr. Tabag with a hammer and killed him, and realized he made a mistake and took action to cover it up."

Lawrence told one of the court-appointed doctors that given the opportunity and the tools, he would kill again. He also said he wants to study anatomy to become more proficient at dismembering, Takata said.

The argument that Lawrence could remember in great detail how he killed Tabag and therefore was not insane is "worth absolutely zero consideration," argued Deputy Public Defender William Jameson.

One of the court-appointed doctors had testified that there have been cases where people who were insane at the time they committed an offense can remember what happened. At least four doctors testified that he suffered from some type of mental disease characterized by delusions and hallucinations.

"Whatever you call it, he had a fixed, powerful delusion that his mission on earth was to kill people and chop them up," Jameson said.

Three of the doctors said that at the time of the killing, Lawrence's belief was so powerful that he could not know what he was doing was wrong, and no one could convince him otherwise, Jameson said.

Why would Lawrence leave behind "a ton of evidence" including the blood on the patio, Tabag's shoes and vacuum cleaning equipment and tell his mother to clean up the blood if he knew what he was doing was wrong? Jameson asked.

His statement that hurting people is wrong but that it was his mission to kill and chop up people was "as clear a sign you can get that his thinking is not right. A great deal of disorder is going on in his mind."

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