The trial, expected to last a month, will illuminate the controversial insanity defense as well as spotlight the national debate over abortion. Abortion rights advocates say they plan to use the closely watched proceedings to focus attention and gain support. Their opponents are expected to do the same.
Using a four-page questionnaire, Dortch-Okara will ask jurors to disclose memberships in religious and social organizations. Jury selection is critical because even one juror with strong beliefs on abortion or mental illness could sway the case, observers say.
Because the judge has ruled that Salvi will not be allowed to argue that he shot the workers to prevent the greater harm of abortion, his trial must focus on his mental state, and on the facts.
As far as the facts, this much is known:
Lowney, 25, was gunned down at her reception desk by a black-clad rifleman who burst into the Beacon Street offices of Planned Parenthood on the morning of Dec. 30, 1994. Nichols, 38, a receptionist at Preterm Health Services, just two miles up the street, was cut down moments later by a man fitting the same description.
Five others were wounded in the attacks.
The shooter dropped a bag at Preterm, and police found a receipt in it.
From that they determined that their suspect was a 22-year-old apprentice hairdresser from southern New Hampshire named John Salvi. They went looking for him immediately, but he had fled.
The next day, still driving his pickup, which was plastered with an antiabortion poster, Salvi shot out the windows of a Norfolk, Va., clinic and was arrested.
Though the shootings in Brookline did not mark the first time abortion clinic workers were gunned down, for the first time it showed the Northeast was not immune to such danger. Even after two doctors and a bodyguard were shot and killed outside Florida clinics in 1993, clinic workers in New England say, they had worried more about harassment than deadly violence. The cold crack of rifle fire shattered that illusion.
``The fact that it happened in Brookline is one of the reasons it sent such a shock wave throughout the country,'' says Nicki Nichols Gamble, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. ``This is a liberal progressive city. It never occurred to me that this kind of action could happen here. . . . It hit people viscerally in a way that the [Florida] murders, as horrible and unacceptable as they were, didn't quite.''
The impact was ``stunning . . . mind-boggling . . . as close to the Oklahoma City bombing as Boston has ever experienced,'' says Abbe Smith, a lecturer in criminal justice at Harvard Law School and former Philadelphia public defender. ``We think it doesn't happen here. It happens in the South. Or maybe in the rural Midwest, where the militia movement is strong. But not in our Brookline.''
Now the emotion shifts to the courtroom where the jury and the public will struggle with the notion that Salvi might not be criminally liable because he might have been insane.
Is his cold hard stare the scowl of a madman? Or is it the disingenuous glare of a man scamming an insanity plea? Is he crazy? Or, as Gamble maintains, crazy like a fox?
After an outburst-riddled hearing last summer, Dortch-Okara ruled Salvi competent to stand trial. A guilty verdict could bring a sentence of life in prison. An acquittal could mean freedom, or commitment to a mental hospital. U.S. Attorney Donald Stern has said he will decide after the trial whether to press federal charges that could bring a death sentence.
Salvi's sanity has been an issue since his arrest. In rambling written statements and courtroom outbursts, he has complained about Freemasons out to blind him, big black evil birds that haunt him, and conspiracies against Catholic infants who are ``being injected with spermicide in their scrotums to render them sterile.''
For jurors to find Salvi not guilty by reason of insanity, his lawyers must convince them that on the day of the shootings he suffered from ``a mental disease or defect'' that made him incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.
A classic example, explains Ronald Ebert, a McLean Hospital board-certified forensic psychologist who routinely testifies in insanity cases, might be a person so mentally ill he thinks the devil is out to get him. He might have looked around the room, seen someone he thought looked like the devil, and strangled him. At that moment, although he clearly strangled a human being, his mental disease had distorted reality so that he thought he was acting in self-defense.
Could such a mental state be faked?
Maybe, said Ebert, but he added, ``Of course juries are very skeptical. It's very hard to persuade the average person'' that a defendant facing serious charges really believed such a thing.
And when the charge is murder, it's only human nature to want to hold someone responsible, lawyers and psychologists say.
Salvi's attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., a specialist in the insanity defense, concedes that his client fired the weapon, but is expected to argue that Salvi was deranged on that day. Prosecutor John Kivlan, a veteran of high profile trials, must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Salvi was sane at the time.
To make its case, the prosecution will call a battery of eyewitnesses, including Richard Seron, 46, the Preterm armed security guard who was wounded five times in the hand, arm and shoulder as he returned the gunman's fire.
Seron says he saw Salvi at the clinic on two previous occasions. He speculates he was casing the place. The gunman's choice of an assault style .22-caliber rifle, and his skill with it, also suggests to Seron a man who had practiced for his attack.
``I'm an NRA-certified firearms instructor, so I have some expertise in weapons. The way he fought me showed that he had been well instructed or had studied diligently. He wasn't aiming the rifle from eye level the way most beginners would. He had it tucked under one arm and he was point-shooting. Shooting from below the shoulder, which is harder,'' Seron said.
``The bottom line is that I feel a lot of training and preparation and scouting went into this. I don't think a lunatic could do it. That's my feeling, and what I'm going to testify to.''
As up to 190 potential witnesses testify, a separate drama is expected to unfold outside the courtroom, featuring partisans in the abortion debate.
``I think there will be opportunities for us to talk and I think we'll try to make some,'' says Gamble, who wants people to understand that Planned Parenthood doesn't just provide abortions. When opponents ``try to shut us down and cause the kind of trouble that this guy caused for us, they're not only interfering with abortions, they're interfering with contraceptive care and sexually transmitted disease prevention and all the things that can help people avoid the need for abortions,'' she said.
Although local antiabortion leaders have no plans to demonstrate at the courthouse, they say they might step up demonstrations at the clinics on Beacon Street.
And while a statement from Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law is expected, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese did not respond when asked to comment on the trial.
``I would like to see the church call for a time of reflection on the way anti-choice leaders talk about abortion,'' said Denise Shannon, vice president of Catholics for a Free Choice. ``Because what we see in the tragedy of these murders is the link between violent rhetoric and violence. . . . Leaders of the anti-choice movement must begin to take that seriously.''