Tulloch abandons insanity defense

by Ithan Peltan | 4/2/02 5:00am

Robert Tulloch, accused of the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop, will change his plea of innocent by reason of insanity at a hearing on Thursday.

Under New Hampshire law, the Vermont teenager's only options are to plead "guilty" or "no contest." A former state prosecutor, John Kacavas, told reporters that a judge would be unlikely to accept a no-contest plea.

In a press release announcing the change-of-plea hearing, though, state Attorney General Philip McLaughlin denied that any plea or other resolution to the Tulloch case has been negotiated.

A sentencing hearing has also been scheduled on Thursday for James Parker -- who pled guilty to a reduced charge in December -- to take place just hours after the hearing for his alleged accomplice.

The scheduling of his sentencing hearing is an indication that, as far as the state is concerned, Parker has played out his role in Tulloch's case. It is unlikely that Parker would be sentenced if prosecutors expected to call him at a future trial.

Parker's sentencing hearing was previously planned for after the Tulloch trial, when prosecutors could inform their sentencing recommendation based on Parker's candor at trial.

In return for his guilty plea to a single charge of accomplice to second-degree murder in the death of Susanne Zantop, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, Parker agreed to become a witness for the prosecution.

The brutal murders of the beloved German-born couple on Jan. 27, 2001 shocked the College community. The Zantops were both stabbed repeatedly in their home in Etna, N.H., just miles from the Dartmouth campus.

Jury selection for Tulloch's trial was set to begin on April 22. Attorneys for Tulloch and for his parents, Michael and Diane Tulloch, declined to comment yesterday.

Until two months ago, little information had emerged about Tulloch and Parker's alleged motive for the murders. Since then, prosecutors have accused Tulloch of committing murder in the course of a robbery.

They say he and Parker planned the murders months in advance, intending to steal ATM cards and PIN numbers as part of a plan to collect enough funds to flee to Australia.

According to the state, the Zantops' home was the fifth to be targeted at random by Tulloch and Parker, who allegedly talked their way in by posing as students conducting an environmental survey.

In court proceedings, prosecutors also said they have damning physical evidence against the teens, including knives found under Tulloch's bed with traces of the Zantops' blood and their fingerprints on knife sheaths found at the home.

However, without motive, experts had said that the prosecutors could still face an uphill battle convincing a jury. Parker's plea appears to have proven to be the turning point in the state's case.

"You can infer from this that Jim Parker and the [evidence] that the state probably disclosed probably did tremendous damage to Robert Tulloch's insanity defense," John Kacavas, a former assistant attorney general, told the Associated Press.

Nevertheless, yesterday's announcement of a change-of-plea hearing comes as a surprise. Defense attorneys filed court papers just last week arguing against a simultaneous trial for Tulloch on the first-degree murder and conspiracy charges.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.