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Priscilla Joyce FORD





Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: She tells that the people she hit were "just pigs, animals let out in a wild place." She testified that she was the incarnation of Jesus and incapable of sin
Number of victims: 6
Date of murder: November 27, 1980
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: February 10, 1929
Victims profile: 3 white females and 3 white males
Method of murder: Drove her car onto a crowded Reno sidewalk
Location: Reno, Washoe County, Nevada, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on April 29, 1982. Died in prison on January 29, 2005
photo gallery

Ford, Priscilla:  Black; age 51 at crime (DOB 2- 10-1929); murder of 3 white females and 3 white males in Reno on 11-27-1980; sentenced on 4-29-1982.


Priscilla Joyce Ford (February 10, 1929 – January 29, 2005) was a mass murderer who was sentenced to death for killing six people, and injuring 23 more, driving down a Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day in 1980. Ford launched numerous appeals against her death sentence, all of which failed. A heavy smoker, she died at the age of 75 after suffering from emphysema.


Death row inmate Ford dies

Woman drove car down Reno sidewalk in '80, killing six, injuring 23

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The only woman on Nevada's death row died Saturday at the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Center in Las Vegas, authorities said. She was 75.

Priscilla Ford had been suffering from emphysema and was pronounced dead at 11:05 a.m., said Fritz Schlottman, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Ford killed six people and injured 23 others when she drove her 1974 Lincoln Continental down a crowded Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day in 1980.

"She had been very quiet for so long," Schlottman said. "No one ever had any problems with her (in prison). I don't remember hearing about her violating any rules."

Ford's numerous appeals of the death sentence cost taxpayers a lot of money and unfairly caused victims' families to relive the tragedy, Washoe County Assistant District Attorney John Helzer said.

Ford had exhausted her state appeals but still had federal appeals left to challenge the death sentence, he said.

"That was such a sad case. It was such a tragedy for so many people," Helzer said. "The fact they had to relive that case, appeal after appeal. Her death will probably bring some peace to those people. She should have been executed a long time ago."

In 1995, Ford lost a state Supreme Court bid to get her sentence eased to life without parole on grounds she didn't get a fair trial.

Ford's lawyer had argued there were all sorts of constitutional problems caused mainly by inadequate legal counsel during her 6-month trial.

But prosecutors had argued there was no basis for the appeal -- and given Ford's mental state it was unlikely she would ever be executed anyway.

Expert medical witnesses said Ford was suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, but prosecutors maintained she knew the difference between right and wrong.

"She was angry that day (of the killings) and what she did was what she attempted to do," Helzer said. "She stayed angry and probably died angry."

The official cause of Ford's death will be determined by the coroner, Schlottman said.

"If they think an autopsy is warranted, they'll do one," he said, adding Ford had been a heavy cigarette smoker.

Ford's death leaves 83 men on Nevada's death row.

Ford was a Michigan native with an IQ of 140. A schoolteacher, she had moved to Reno from Maine about three weeks before the rampage. She told acquaintances she went to Reno to look for her missing daughter, Wynter Scott. Washoe County authorities had placed the girl in a foster home in 1973 after Ford was arrested for trespassing.

Before the 1980 crime that became known as the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre," Ford had said "the people of Reno will pay in death" for taking her daughter. She also told a U.S. attorney in Maine in 1979 that she would run down pedestrians if he did not help her get her daughter back.

In 1982, she was sentenced to death at the conclusion of a nearly six-month trial, at the time the longest murder trial in Nevada history. She showed no emotion when the verdict was read.

Witnesses said Ford deliberately struck people while driving along the gambling strip on South Virginia Street, sending holiday strollers diving for cover.

"She came right at us; she came right at us with a body still on the hood of the car, and she looked like she was looking for somebody else to hit," Reno resident Marty Edmundson said shortly after the attack.

The black Lincoln twisted street signs, crushed newspaper vending boxes and knocked over a fire call box. The car carried one woman on its hood the length of a city block.

The dead and injured littered the bloody sidewalk as rescue workers frantically administered aid. Nearby casinos remained open. Ford subsequently referred to her victims as "beasts and pigs."

After her arrest, she told a doctor that the voice of Joan Kennedy, then the wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ordered her to kill. "Just run through a whole bunch of people and kill everybody," the voice said.

She pleaded innocent by reason of insanity and testified at her trial, where she told jurors she was "as happy as I could possibly be" on the day of the rampage.

"I am in the state of mind that I am in heaven," said Ford, who told jurors she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

The prosecutor showed her pictures of each of the six dead victims.

"Were you as happy as you could be and in a heavenly state when you ran into (this person)?" he asked six times.

"Yes," Ford replied each time in a firm voice, appearing glum but unshaken by the photos.

She told the jury she had shown remorse in private, but when asked if she cared about the six dead victims, she said, "How can I care? Is there anything I can do? Feeling good doesn't do any good for them."

Ford took the stand against the wishes of her attorney, who called her testimony "public suicide."

Ford said she began experimenting with marijuana in 1971 and considered it "the tree of life."

She told jurors her husband died after their separation in 1972, one day after she told her children, "I hope God strikes him dead."

She said she left Reno in 1973 in an odyssey aimed at regaining custody of her daughter. Her travels took her to Maine, Vermont and Chicago, where she quit two jobs because she did not like black people. Ford was black.

On appeal, her attorneys contended she was insane at the time of the slayings.

"She did not appreciate the fact that the people she was hitting were human beings," an attorney wrote.


Reno Woman Who Killed Six With Auto Sentenced to Die

The New York Times

March 30, 1982

A jury sentenced Priscilla Ford to death today for killing six people as she drove through a crowded sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980.

The jury deliberated five days before sentencing Mrs. Ford, 53 years old, to death.

The District Attorney called Mrs. Ford ''evil personified''; her lawyer argued that she was mentally ill. Mrs. Ford, a former teacher, was convicted March 19 on six counts of murder and 23 of attempted murder. She had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Despite that plea, Mrs. Ford bristled at the suggestion that she was insane. The trial took an unexpected turn in February when Mrs. Ford insisted on taking the stand. She testified that she was the incarnation of Jesus and incapable of sin.



Feb. 10, 1929 - Priscilla Ford is born in Berren Springs, Michigan.

1957 - Ford, with only a high school education, takes a job as teacher in a one-room school house Dowagiac, Mich. School board officials are at first skeptical of Ford's abilities and nervous because she is the first black teacher in the area. But they are soon singing her praises as a gifted, caring teacher. She keeps the job for more than seven years and earns a bachelor's degree in education in 1966.

1970 - Family and friends report Ford's behavior has become increasingly bizarre. She reports seeing her dead husband across the street from her home in Buffalo, N.Y. and talks about having the soul of Adam and Jesus Christ.

1972 - Ford's son returns from the Army and reports she is delusional and an alcoholic.

1973 - Ford, now living in Reno, voluntarily commits herself to the Nevada Mental Health Institute, where she is treated and released. The diagnosis: passive-aggressive personality with hysterical episodes.

1974 - Ford is arrested for trespassing and is again sent for a mental health evaluation. Her daughter, Wynter Scott, 11, is taken away by social workers and placed in Wittenberg Hall. Ford considers her daughter a kidnapping victim. Ford moves back to New York, where she seeks help from Catholic Charities in Buffalo. A nun describes her as delusional.

1978 - Ford is treated at a mental hospital in Blackfoot, Idaho.

1979 - Ford is treated at a mental hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., where she is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

May 1980 - Now living in Maine, Ford asks an attorney for help in getting her daughter back. She allegedly tells the lawyer that if she isn’t helped, she will "drive across the state and kill every body she saw along the way."

November 1980 - Ford, en route to San Francisco, stops in Reno to cash a check and decides to remain in the city. She gets a temporary job as a package wrapper at Macy's.

Nov. 27, 1980 - Ford goes on a five-block-Thanksgiving-Day-rampage in her 1974 Lincoln, killing six people and injuring 23. Arrested at the scene, she later tells a jailer she "did what she had to do" and that the people she hit were "just pigs, animals let out in a wild place." She is indicted in December on six counts of murder and 23 counts of attempted murder.

January 1981 - A judge orders that Ford receive mental health treatment so that she will be competent for trial. She pleads not guilty by reason of insanity in August 1981.

March 20, 1982 - A jury of seven men and five women find Ford guilty on all counts. She is sentenced to death on March 29 and says "I would like to be left alone to die in peace." For the next 18 years Ford goes through appeals process while she remains in death row in Ely, Nevada.


The day terror came downtown

Priscilla Ford’s deadly drive

By D. Brian Burghart -

July 17, 2003

Reno, 1980. At around 47 degrees, it’s a warm Thursday in November. It’s 2:57 in the afternoon. This isn’t just any Thursday; it’s Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27. People are milling along casino row. Perhaps because of the mild weather, there are more tourists than usual here during the tail end of a national recession. Ronald Reagan was elected president weeks prior. There are 54 American hostages held in Iran.

Does a feeling of portent arise? This scene is moments away from inscription onto the pages of Reno history. A heinous act will occur on this spot in a matter of moments—an act that, while suspended in that bygone second in time, will live on more than two decades later. The person who will perpetrate the act, while undoubtedly in possession of a diseased mind, will be prosecuted to the gates of—but possibly evade—the ultimate punishment of death. The issues raised by the murders, trial and appeals will be evoked every time a name like David Berkowitz, John Hinckley Jr. or Andrea Yates arises in the national consciousness.

In this quarter-century old landscape, Reno is a different town. Fewer towering buildings decorate the skyline. The slate crosswalks downtown aren’t yet conceived, nor are the purple flower boxes and trash cans that will give Virginia Street an effervescent character. A time traveler would likely hear the sounds of Kenny Rogers’ saccharine “Lady” or Blondie’s “Call Me” from a passing car radio.

Competing with street sounds are the mechanical jingling, clinking and ringing slot machines. The noises from the slot machines are from metal striking metal, not the electronic keening that will come with advances in technology. The smell of the Club Cal-Neva’s Thanksgiving special—roast turkey or baked ham with vegetables, roll and butter, $3.95—wafts in the air. Those planning Christmas shopping are more likely to come downtown or to Park Lane Mall than to J.C. Penney at Meadowood Mall, which has yet to become the area’s shopping mecca.

Standing at the Virginia Street corner of the Club Cal-Neva on East Second Street and looking north, a time traveler sees a First National Bank across the street. Down the block, a man in sandwich boards advertises a local strip club. Harrah’s much less ostentatious casino neighbors the bank to the north; then stands the Nevada Club, then Harold’s Club, then Douglas Alley. The Reno Arch is the version with two pylons suspending a frowning arc that holds four octagons each with a letter spelling out R-E-N-O. Below is a smiling arc that proclaims “THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD.”

Sixty seconds pass. The sandwich board man ambles a bit farther toward the university. Three o’clock must signal a change in shift for some of these casinos, as the demeanor of the crowd changes momentarily, and a smattering of black-and-whites joins the usual street-corner drunks, who clutch free-drink tokes, and older tourists shaking plastic change cups, some brimming, some without enough coins to make a noise.

To the south, past the Truckee River and hidden by a curve and the hill that rises to Liberty Street, a 6-year-old, blue Lincoln Continental heads north on Virginia Street. Death is behind the wheel. In this incarnation, Death takes the form of one Priscilla Joyce Ford. She wears a black cape. She turned 51 nine months earlier on Feb. 10. Even though she’s a little buzzed, she’s made it all the way from her home near Meadowood Mall. She doesn’t think she’s Death, though. She thinks she’s Jesus Christ or Eve’s husband, Adam, or a 19th-century Seventh-day Adventist prophetess. Or the Holy Spirit who is, in her belief system, the feminine aspect of the Trinity.

Ford is a 5-feet-4-inches-tall black woman. She weighs 125 pounds and has brown eyes and shoulder-length hair combed back. She had crackers and Emerald Dry Wine before leaving on her errand. Her blood-alcohol ratio is .162. That’s too drunk to be driving legally, but many a barfly has made it home with higher.

It takes another minute for the Lincoln to make its way to 100 feet south of the southeast corner of Second and Virginia streets. At 2:59 p.m., the Lincoln jumps the curb and careens down the sidewalk. It hits the curb at about 20 miles an hour, a speed not likely to blow the tires. The car rapidly accelerates to as high as 40 miles an hour, driving 100 feet down the sidewalk, witnesses will later say. It crosses the Second Street crosswalk and continues another 322 feet down the sidewalk in front of the bank, in front of Harrah’s, Nevada Club and Harold’s Club. Then it’s back on Virginia Street, crossing to the southbound lane and stopping two blocks later behind traffic at the Fifth Street traffic light. The light is red.

Destruction follows the car’s path like an indictment. Five people are killed immediately, and 24 are injured. Fourteen people will be sent to Washoe Medical Center; the remaining 10 to St. Mary’s. Street signs, body parts, clothing and the wounded and dead lie on the sidewalk and in the gutter like victims of a natural disaster. But this is an entirely unnatural disaster.

It takes only a few seconds for Ford to drive that five-block total. For the victims, every second following the attack is an eternity, waiting for help to arrive, for family members to come, for the news of survivors and casualties. But the longest wait, some will later say, is for justice.

The two daily newspapers, the Nevada State Journal and the Reno Evening Gazette, contain chilling accounts of the killings in progress.

“It looked as though someone had gone through the streets with a lawnmower, mowing people down,” a woman from Canada who’d witnessed the massacre from the Onslow Hotel-Casino tells the Gazette. “It looked like a battlefield—there were bodies all over the place.”

Marty Edmondson of Reno offers a chilling view of the car as former schoolteacher Ford sped onto the pages of Nevada’s list of most infamous mass murderers.

“She came right at us, she came right at us with a body still on the hood of the car, and she looked like she was looking for somebody else to hit.”

Priscilla Ford doesn’t resist when police remove her from the car. She is mad, though.

John Oakes is the deputy district attorney on call that day.

“I was dispatched down to a hit and run,” he says. “I thought they were kidding me; it’s Thanksgiving. I got downtown, and it was a fucking war zone. There were bodies and shit everywhere. It was carnage. People were crying, and ambulances were responding. It was a cluster-fuck.”

Later, Oakes is told to keep an eye on Ford.

“There was a trauma center set up down at Washoe Med, and we had the victims coming in crying and screaming. Family members crying and screaming. She was right next door. An officer and I were directed to maintain security because a lot of people wanted to kill her.”

Oakes spends around five hours in the company of the killer. He says the most remarkable thing about her was her calmness—mixed with callousness.

“She looked at me point-blank and said, ‘How many people did I kill?’ I said, ‘Five or six.’ She said, ‘Good.’ She was very placid. Like just another day. Very matter of fact. Very matronly, motherly. She was acting self-righteous, like she was justified in what she did. We couldn’t figure out why at the time.

“What’s the first defense of anybody who creates this kind of carnage? ‘Only a crazy person would do something like that.’ I got down to RPD before she was brought into booking, and I had them set up the video. [Video technology was new in Reno.] So we could see on tape exactly how lucid she was. She knew who she was and where she was; that tape was worth its weight in gold.”

The trial would not begin for a year. On Jan. 29, 1981, Ford was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to Lake’s Crossing for mental treatment. On April 29, 1981, she was ordered to submit to treatment, including drug therapy. Finally, on Aug. 4, 1981, she was found competent for trial.

The trial began on Nov. 12, 1981, and would last nearly five months—making it, at that time, the longest and most expensive in Reno history. There was little doubt as to whether Ford drove the murder car. There were dozens upon dozens of witnesses to the act. The community’s heart poured out to the injured and killed. There was no lack of voices calling for blood or vengeance.

All that was missing was a motive—one that the community could understand. Of the several motives offered, it seemed each one was crazier than the last, or at least just as unfounded in reality. As details about the woman’s life became clearer, the primary issue in the murder trial—Ford’s ability to recognize the difference between right and wrong—became murkier.

The characters in the courtroom drama were almost clichés. At one table, the community’s voice of retribution, District Attorney Cal Dunlap. He declared early on that he wanted to see Ford’s end in Nevada’s gas chamber. (The 1983 Nevada Legislature would change the method of execution to lethal injection.) At the other, Public Defender Lew Carnahan. The combatants were seconded by police, doctors, witnesses to the act and eventually by Ford’s family and acquaintances.

Ford was charged with six counts of murder and 23 counts of attempted murder. Seven people had died of injuries suffered in the attack, but due to the issues involved in changing the murder indictment, she was charged with only six.

Ford’s plea was also expected: not guilty by reason of insanity. It’s a desperation defense that rarely succeeds. Still, wags would say that she’d have to be crazy not to try the insanity defense. Years later, the Nevada Supreme Court would agree with the wags.

“The more dead, the better,” a police officer quoted Ford as saying as she waited for tests to determine her blood’s alcohol or drug content at Washoe Medical Center. That was in the early days of the trial. “I deliberately planned to get as many as possible. A Lincoln Continental can do a lot of damage, can’t it?” Later the officer testified Ford said, “I am a New York teacher. I’m tired of life. I want attention, I’m sick of problems. In June 1980, a voice told me to drive through a crowd at a theater and kill as many as possible. But another voice said she’s too much of a lady to do it.”

That voice was Joan Kennedy’s. That would be Joan Kennedy, wife to Sen. Edward Kennedy. The voice that counseled her against the mass slaughter was a nationally famous attorney. These celebrity relationships existed only in Ford’s head.

The accused had a few associations with fame, although they were also related to Ford’s mental deficiencies. She had an unusual fixation on Barbara Walters and thought Walters was a beast. She wrote to Dear Abby. In 1978, she unsuccessfully sued the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half a billion dollars. She called herself “America’s only authorized divinity,” which would be funny if she hadn’t been deadly serious.

Ford’s story evolved from almost the first moments after the crime. She claimed to a psychiatrist that Reno child welfare officials had stolen her 11-year-old daughter, Wynter Scott, seven years before, and so she committed the murders to get attention so that she could get some help finding her daughter.

It was true that officials had taken her daughter after Ford had been arrested for trespassing and assault, but they’d been trying to contact the drifter, Ford, to tell her the child’s whereabouts for years. Still, vengeance for the loss of a daughter was a motive people could understand. The problem is that other testimony showed she’d known her daughter’s location, in Los Angeles with relatives, for some time. Later, she claimed the car had suffered some kind of mechanical malfunction. It seems a person would have to be crazy to change stories with the knowledge that the earlier stories had been widely reported in court and in the newspapers.

Throughout the months leading up to the trial, and interspersed in the trial, were the testimonies of expert medical witnesses who said Ford was suffering from a variety of mental illnesses—including paranoid schizophrenia with religious delusions and paranoid psychosis. According to newspaper reports, she’d been diagnosed as mentally unstable since as early as 1973, when she was diagnosed as having a passive-aggressive personality with hysterical episodes. (Perhaps the fact that she shot her second husband and then herself in 1957 might have given medical officials pause. No charges were filed in the self-defense shooting.) The only opinion experts didn’t express was that Ford was faking it.

Dunlap wasn’t convinced, though, calling the insanity defense a sham. But the biggest dispute at trial boiled down to whether Ford knew it was wrong for her to hurt and kill those people on Virginia Street on Thanksgiving Day in 1980.

At various times in the trial, Ford was ruled competent and then incompetent to stand trial, understand the charges against her or to assist her lawyers in her own defense. The prosecution argued that medication made her competent, and the court agreed. Of course, it seemed once she was competent for trial, she was also competent to decide whether she wanted to be medicated, but that argument was quickly squashed with a new motion from prosecutor Dunlap.

The competency issue was in part muddled by the fact that a person doesn’t necessarily have to be sane to be competent enough to stand trial. And the Nevada insanity standard, known as the M’Naughten Rule, doesn’t say that competence to stand trial proves sanity or insanity at the moment the crime was committed.

With all the legal maneuverings, it seemed the doctors and lawyers would be the stars of the show. That was true until Ford took the stand in her own defense. During the subsequent five days, she made such claims as that she was the spirit of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and Adam reincarnate.

“I am human,” she testified. “And I am divine. I don’t like it any more than anyone else does. I don’t want to be divine.”

The only person whose non-credentialed testimony seemed to have as much impact was the testimony of Wynter Scott, the daughter Ford claimed had been abducted by child welfare officials. Scott told of her youth with Ford. Among other things, Ford taught her daughter how to smoke marijuana at the age of 9. At various times, Ford had discussed her belief in her own divinity and had suggested plans to have Scott artificially inseminated in order to bring another messiah, through virgin birth, into the world.

“She talked about Jesus Christ, about her being Jesus Christ, about me being Jesus Christ,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported Scott’s testimony. “She talked to my aunt about me being artificially inseminated to bear Jesus Christ.”

The seven-woman, five-man jury only took 13 hours of deliberation to find Ford guilty of murdering six people and attempting to murder 23 others. All that was left for the jury to decide was whether she would be put to death in the gas chamber or receive life with or without the possibility of parole.

It took nine more days, to March 28, 1982, for the verdict: death in Nevada’s gas chamber.

But that was just the beginning of a new chapter for Priscilla Ford.

More than 21 years later, defense attorney Lew Carnahan says the case was a difficult time for him, that in some ways, he’d prefer to forget.

“My firm belief was that she was legally insane, even under the strict M’Naughten Test,” Carnahan said. “If the jury had found the facts as I believe they existed, she would be in a mental hospital, not in a prison. I certainly respect the jury and their efforts, but I think they made a wrong decision in their interpretation of the facts. I think she should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a secure facility, such as Lake’s Crossing. I believe she would have been there for the rest of her life.”

Although she immediately disputed the insanity plea, claiming sanity, and said she wanted “to be left alone to die in peace,” state law mandates a review of the death sentence.

The 21st anniversary of her first assigned end in the gas chamber passed unnoted Saturday, July 12. In 1986, her conviction was upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court, but in a footnote to the opinion, the court called into question the justice of the sentence.

“Notwithstanding our disposition of this appeal, we do not perceive this case to be among the brightest stars in the judicial firmament. The senseless nature of Mrs. Ford’s conduct, coupled with her troubled and poignant history as wife and mother, lead us to conclude that the better course would have been a negotiated resolution assuring society of the defendant’s permanent sequestration. Such a resolution would have been just considering the ambivalent nuances of her mental condition and the unrelenting obsession of a mother deprived of her child that haunted her life for many years prior to her unfocused act of vengeance.”

The justices also wrote that by April 8, 1986, excluding the district attorney’s fees, public defender’s fees, judicial salaries, judicial support staff salaries and some commitment of facilities, Ford’s direct trial costs totaled $274,494.

Dunlap says even if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have changed his efforts to get Ford sentenced to death.

“The reason I went for the punishment I went for wasn’t because I thought she would ever be put to death,” he said. “It was the best way that I knew how to assure that she would never hurt anybody else. In those days, and since then, the mental health people have let people go, and the parole people have let people go, people who have killed again—they shouldn’t have been let go. People who have the death penalty to deal with don’t get out at all or they get out a whole lot later than those who are convicted of first-degree murder without the death penalty.”

To date, due to sanity hearings and death penalty appeals, Ford has missed more than five court-appointed dates with the executioner, and many people, including prosecutor Dunlap, doubt she’ll ever be put to death.


Supreme Court of Nevada


Priscilla FORD, Appellant,
The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.

717 P.2d 27 (1986)

No. 14057.

April 8, 1986.

David G. Parraguirre, Public Defender, Lew Carnahan, Jane McKenna, Mark Mausert, Deputy Public Defenders, Reno, for appellant.
Brian McKay, Atty. Gen., Carson City, Mills Lane, Dist. Atty., and Gregory Shannon, Deputy Dist. Atty., Calvin R.X. Dunlap, Reno, for respondent.


STEFFEN, Justice:

November 27, 1980 was a fateful Thanksgiving Day in the State of Nevada. Defendant below, Priscilla Ford, drove her mechanically sound 1974 Lincoln Continental automobile onto a crowded sidewalk in downtown Reno. The resulting carnage included six dead and twenty-three injured.1 After a jury selection process of nearly a month's duration, trial commenced on November 12, 1981, and concluded over four months later with the jury convicting Mrs. Ford of six counts of first degree murder and twenty-three counts of attempted murder. Subsequently, the penalty phase of the trial resulted in sentences of death on the six murder convictions and consecutive sentences of twenty years imprisonment on each of the twenty-three convictions for attempted murder. Mrs. Ford unsuccessfully appeals from her convictions and sentences as we have determined that she was fairly tried and sentenced.

Procedural History

Mrs. Ford was arrested at the scene. Almost immediately her mental competence became a matter of focused concern. A series of psychiatric evaluations prompted by a defense motion for psychiatric examination culminated in a determination by the district court that Mrs. Ford was not competent to stand trial. After a period of treatment at Lake's Crossing that included a court-authorized, defense-resisted regimen of anti-psychotic drug therapy, the district court ordered a sanity commission consisting of three psychiatrists to examine Mrs. Ford. As a result of the commission's findings, the district court concluded that Mrs. Ford was mentally competent to undergo trial.

Several weeks prior to trial, defense counsel again moved the trial court for a psychiatric examination of the defendant. After the judge refused to hear the motion in chambers, defense counsel withdrew the motion. Later, when Mrs. Ford insisted on testifying, against her counsel's advice, counsel asked the court to refuse her the right to testify or order a psychiatric examination. At the time of Mrs. Ford's sentencing, defense counsel sought again to have the defendant evaluated by psychiatrists. The trial court denied both motions.

On May 19, 1982, Mrs. Ford filed a declaration of waiver of appeal here in the Nevada Supreme Court. We ordered the district court to canvass the defendant for purposes of determining her competence to waive her right of appeal. The trial court, refusing the prosecutor's request for a psychiatric evaluation, determined that Mrs.

[ 717 P.2d 29 ]

Ford had knowingly and intelligently waived her right to appellate review. We were unconvinced and directed the district court to appoint a panel of three psychiatrists to examine Mrs. Ford to determine whether she was, indeed, competent to waive a right of such magnitude and consequence. The panel unanimously found that Mrs. Ford was not mentally competent to rationally elect to forego her right of appeal. We therefore rejected her attempted waiver and this appeal ensued.

Issues on Appeal

Four issues were raised on appeal as a basis for relief from defendant's convictions and sentences. Considered individually or collectively, the issues do not justify interfering with the product of the jury's deliberations over the protracted course of defendant's trial.

I. The Guilt Phase


Change of Venue

Mrs. Ford challenges the trial court's ruling denying her motion for a change of venue. The trial court did not err.

In view of the pathos and fury permeating the Thanksgiving Day disaster, it is not difficult to appreciate the extent of media attention it received. Nevertheless, considerations compelling a venue change are not necessarily coextensive with the degree and nature of media coverage accorded the underlying criminal act. The preeminent issue in a motion seeking a transfer of trial site is whether the ambiance of the place of the forum has been so thoroughly perverted that the constitutional imperative of a fair and impartial panel of jurors has been unattainable. Kaplan v. State, 96 Nev. 798, 618 P.2d 354 (1980). The net concern of a criminal defendant is whether the community hosting the trial will yield a jury qualified to deliberate impartially and upon competent trial evidence, the guilt or innocence of the accused. This, of course, implicates the jury selection process and explains why a motion for a change of venue must be presented to the court after voir dire of the venire. NRS 174.455.

We have previously validated the tenet that an ignorant jury is neither the hallmark nor the sine qua non of a constitutionally qualified jury in today's society. See, e.g., Gallego v. State, 101 Nev. 782, 711 P.2d 856 (1985); cf. Irvin v. Dowd,366 U.S. 717, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 6 L.Ed.2d 751 (1961). It is clear on the record that virtually every juror had some pretrial awareness of the facts surrounding the incident on Thanksgiving Day. In support of the motion for venue change, defense counsel produced sixty-six newspaper articles pertaining to the Ford incident.2 Additionally, attention was drawn to the extensive publicity that occurred via television and radio. In short, defendant's criminal conduct on Thanksgiving Day, 1980, expectedly precipitated pervasive news coverage that undoubtedly reached a high percentage of Nevada residents, both in Reno and elsewhere throughout the State.3

Venue determinations are committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge and will remain undisturbed on appeal absent a clear demonstration of an abuse of discretion. Cutler v. State, 93 Nev. 329,

[ 717 P.2d 30 ]

566 P.2d 809 (1977). Appellant has presented no such demonstration here. The trial judge pondered the nature and scope of the pretrial publicity surrounding the circumstances of this case and rightfully concluded that the totality thereof did not corrupt the trial atmosphere to the point of precluding a fair trial by an impartial jury. The pretrial publicity of the nuances of the holiday tragedy, its victims and perpetrator, could hardly be described as a monolithic condemnation of Mrs. Ford. Segments of reports were devoted to her history of mental illness and her claim of accident. Reports of her mental history or condition did not appear to be exaggerated or discounted. Moreover, given the fact that Mrs. Ford was indisputably behind the wheel of the death car, it was noteworthy that virtually all of the pretrial publicity was free of rhetoric ascribing legal guilt to Mrs. Ford. Both the seemingly senseless nature of the catastrophe and the speculation concerning Mrs. Ford's mental history and condition may have actually benefited defendant since her only plausible defense at trial was that of insanity.4

Finally, the record reveals that the lengthy sifting process in the individual voir dire of the venire produced a trial-worthy jury. It is true that numerous veniremen were unsuited for jury service because of irredeemable prejudice, but that fact alone was not dispositive on the issue of venue. Moreover, given the uncontested involvement of Mrs. Ford in the calamity of Thanksgiving Day, it was significant that no venireman was asked whether he or she had formed an opinion as to Mrs. Ford's guilt under the law based upon her mental condition at the time of the incident. Since the question was not posed, the record reflects no instances where prospective jurors not discharged for cause admitted harboring preconceived opinions of the defendant's mental state or legal culpability at the time of the disaster. Most importantly, the trial judge, who witnessed the demeanor and apparent sincerity of the jurors at great length, accepted the declaration of each that he or she would forsake any opinion and follow the law and the evidence as presented during trial. Also, each juror expressed a willingness to entertain a sentence other than death in the event of a guilty verdict. Although defendant characterizes the aforementioned commitments as coached responses to improper importunings by the trial judge, we conclude to the contrary. The trial judge displayed great patience and concern in the process of selecting a jury panel genuinely committed to constitutional attitudes and behavior.

In Gallego v. State, supra, we said:

Given the realities of our age, it is unlikely that a high-profile criminal defendant will be presented with a venire of uninformed individuals from which to select a jury. Indeed, it is conceded by many jurists that such a panel would least likely provide the considered, enlightened judgment that can best serve the demands of trial. As a result, courts abide by the following standards:

To hold that the mere existence of any preconceived notion as to the guilt or innocence of an accused without more, is sufficient to rebut the presumption of a prospective juror's impartiality would be to establish an impossible standard. It is sufficient if the juror can lay aside his impression or opinion and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court.

Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 44 L.Ed.2d 589 (1975), quoting Irvin v. Dowd, supra 366 U.S. at 723, 81 S.Ct. at 1642-1643.

The trial judge determined that the ranks of the venire produced a jury composed of

[ 717 P.2d 31 ]

men and women legally qualified to serve as jurors in defendant's trial. We discern no basis for holding otherwise. The trial court did not err in denying the motion for a change of venue.


Challenges for Cause

Defendant contends that several prospective jurors never should have survived challenges for cause. The gravamen of this issue is that a number of veniremen presented no reliable evidence of impartiality, having merely parroted the symbols of impartiality orchestrated by the trial judge. A thorough examination of the record repels such a characterization of the unsuccessfully challenged individuals.

It is true that firm commitments of impartiality were often delayed because of vacillations stemming from several factors, not the least of which were the form and nature of questions posed by defense counsel. The latter aspect of the problem included such questions as: (1) "As you sit there right now and look over at Mrs. Ford, do you see her as an innocent person in all honesty?" (of course, the response was "no") and (2) "Do you think you are the kind of person that might have made the statement Whoever would do something like that ought to be taken out and shot?" (the response was "right"). Other questions pertained to the unascertainable attitude of a man's subconscious mind and the comparison between a venireman's experiences in Viet Nam and the incident on Thanksgiving Day. In reviewing the very lengthy voir dire of the venire, at least four factors are clear. First, Mrs. Ford engaged in tragic, sensational behavior on Thanksgiving Day that resulted in pervasive news coverage of an event that naturally elicited strong feelings among informed, normal, humane elements of the community, state and national populace. Second, the passage of time and considerations beyond the immediate horror of the incident produced an attenuation of feelings among the venire. Third, given the fact that Mrs. Ford was concededly behind the wheel of the implement of death and injury, preconceived general opinions of guilt should not have been unexpected. The key question, never posed, was whether members of the venire had formed concrete opinions of the defendant's legal guilt based upon conclusions regarding her mental competence. It must be emphasized that the only credible defense raised to the crimes charged against Mrs. Ford was that of innocence by reason of insanity. Any venire in the country, thus informed of Mrs. Ford's involvement, could have responded affirmatively, in one voice, to a general question of Mrs. Ford's guilt. The difficult issue was deciding whether jurors so informed would nevertheless fairly and impartially decide whether Mrs. Ford was guilty or innocent under the law based solely on the evidence produced at trial, including that evidence relating to her insanity defense. All jurors ultimately selected convinced the trial judge of their suitability under the constraints inherent in the latter issue. Fourth, individual responses to counsel and ultimately the presiding judge reflected unconditioned attitudes and commitments upon which the judge could properly base his decision regarding challenges for cause. In brief, we do not find on this record persuasive evidence of judicial brainwashing. Nor do we perceive error in the district court's rulings on this issue, including an ancillary ruling denying defendant's request for additional peremptory challenges not provided by statute. See Gallego v. State, supra.


Competency Hearing

Defendant advances the dubious proposition that in spite of defense counsel's failure to recognize the need for a competency hearing throughout most of the trial, the district court, sua sponte, should have ordered such a hearing. Defendant's contention lacks merit.

The United States Supreme Court has declared the conviction of a criminal defendant while mentally incompetent a violation

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of due process. Pate v. Robinson,383 U.S. 375, 86 S.Ct. 836, 15 L.Ed.2d 815 (1966). Moreover, we have held that a competency hearing is required when reasonable doubt exists on the issue. Melchor-Gloria v. State, 99 Nev. 174, 660 P.2d 109 (1983).

In the instant case, trial was scheduled after Mrs. Ford had been evaluated by a panel of psychiatrists and declared mentally competent to stand trial by the trial judge. Thereafter, the issue of mental competence did not arise until a few weeks before trial when defense counsel requested another psychiatric examination of the defendant. Inexplicably, the request was withdrawn when the judge refused to hear the motion in chambers. The motion was never formally renewed by defense counsel throughout the period of trial. We also note that this Court sustained defendant's objection to the continuation of mandatory ingestion of anti-psychotic medication during trial, and granted mandamus directing the district court to vacate its order enforcing the administration of such drugs to Mrs. Ford. See Ford v. District Court, 97 Nev. 578, 635 P.2d 578 (1981). Our decision denying the State the right to impose continued anti-psychotic drug therapy on the protesting defendant was based upon the fact that Mrs. Ford had been determined to be mentally competent to stand trial and was thus outside the purview of Nevada's statutes mandating detention and psychiatric treatment. Id. at pp. 579-80, 635 P.2d 578. Moreover, the finding of mental competence remained essentially free of challenge throughout the pretrial and trial periods.5

Defendant contends that her trial behavior should have alerted the trial judge to the fact that her mental competence was reasonably in doubt. In support of this contention, we are directed to the lengthy trial testimony by both lay and expert witnesses, describing her history of aberrational behavior, mental disorders and institutional observation. Defendant also refers us to her insistence in taking the witness stand against the solemn advice of her counsel and the substance of her trial testimony. While Mrs. Ford's history reflects the hardships of a troubled person, it would be difficult to characterize that history in unequivocal terms. In any event, the historical testimony of Mrs. Ford's trials and tribulations related to periods substantially remote in time from the period in issue. Moreover, defense counsel is unpersuasive in raising defendant's insistence in testifying as evidence of mental incompetence. The trial judge examined Mrs. Ford regarding her desire to testify and found her responses consistent with those of an understanding, mentally competent person. Our reading of the record confirms the judgment of the trial judge in concluding that Mrs. Ford was competent and that there was no basis for any further hearing on that subject. On balance, the trial testimony given by the defendant likewise vindicates the district court's perception of her mental state.6 As indicated previously, defendant's

[ 717 P.2d 33 ]

counsel apparently considered her to be competent until she insisted on disregarding his advice against testifying.

The trial judge had the opportunity to evaluate Mrs. Ford's demeanor and the substance of her testimony during the course of a lengthy trial. At no time did the judge find cause to question defendant's competence. In reviewing the record, we are not persuaded that the district court abused its discretion in not ordering a psychiatric examination of the defendant during trial.

Defendant nevertheless points to this Court's determination that she was incompetent to waive her right of appeal as evidence of incompetence during trial. This contention is also without merit. Priscilla Ford's trial concluded in March, 1982. We declared her incompetent to waive her right of appellate review some twenty-one months later, in December, 1983. Considering the impact of a death sentence and her long-discontinued drug therapy, it is strongly possible, if not probable, that Mrs. Ford reached a level of incompetence during the lengthy interim between trial and our decision. Moreover, this Court's determination was a product of both a unified opinion of three psychiatrists and our concern that the vital right of review not be denied a defendant sentenced to death where evidence of the capacity to knowingly and intelligently waive that right was not clearly and convincingly demonstrated. In other words, we resolved the benefit of all doubt against waiver.


Validating Guilt Under M'Naghten Rule

Defendant argues that the trial evidence conclusively negated the presumption of Mrs. Ford's sanity at the time of the offenses, thereby precluding consideration of the issue as a jury question. We disagree.

Under Nevada law, insanity is an affirmative defense which the presumedly sane defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence. Clark v. State, 95 Nev. 24, 588 P.2d 1027 (1979). The presumption of sanity operates most critically, of course, at the time the offense is committed. See, e.g., Ybarra v. State, 100 Nev. 167, 679 P.2d 797 (1984); State v. Hartley,90 N.M. 488, 565 P.2d 658 (1977); State v. Roadenbaugh,234 Kan. 474, 673 P.2d 1166 (1983); State v. Romero,684 P.2d 643 (Utah 1984); State v. Crenshaw,98 Wn.2d 789, 659 P.2d 488 (1983). This Court has long adhered to the rule in M'Naghten's case as the test for criminal responsibility for the commission of an offense which, absent the requisite mental incapacity, constitutes a criminal act. Briefly stated, M'Naghten's rule provides:

[I]f the defendant have capacity and reason sufficient to enable him to distinguish right from wrong as to the particular act in question, and has knowledge and consciousness that the act he is doing is wrong, and will deserve punishment, he is in the eye of the law, of sound mind and memory, and should be held responsible for his acts... .

State v. Lewis, 20 Nev. 333, 351, 22 P. 241 (1889); Criswell v. State, 84 Nev. 459, 463, 443 P.2d 552 (1968). Focusing on defendant's contention, it is apparent that the effect of the presumption of sanity may be negated only if: (1) the basic facts are unsupported by substantial evidence; (2) the basic facts are not otherwise established; or (3) the "evidence as a whole negatives the existence of the presumed fact." NRS 47.230(2). The presumption of sanity is not rebutted merely by a history of prior institutional commitments or diagnoses of mental deficiency or derangement. Legal insanity is not circumscribed in meaning or purpose by medical criteria concerning human psychosis. State v. Crenshaw, supra at 491, 495, 443 P.2d 552.

[ 717 P.2d 34 ]

As noted previously, evidence reflected the fact that Mrs. Ford has exhibited the attitudes and behavior of a troubled person over a prolonged period of years. Her life's experiences also proved her to be intelligent and resourceful, if not devious. On those few occasions, remote in time from the offenses here considered, when Mrs. Ford was institutionalized her periods of commitment were brief and uneventful. She functioned resourcefully in society and seemingly had little difficulty securing employment. In any event, the extent, if not the existence, of mental deficiencies in Mrs. Ford was sharply disputed by trial experts and lay witnesses. There was ample evidence for the district court to conclude that the issue of the defendant's mental capacity at the time of the Thanksgiving Day offenses should be decided by the trier of fact. A review of the record does not reveal error by the trial court in submitting this issue to the jury.

II. The Penalty Phase

Defendant has not challenged the legal propriety of her sentences. It is nevertheless incumbent on this Court to review the ultimate sentence given to Mrs. Ford and determine its applicability under Nevada law as it existed at the time of her criminal conduct.7 We are therefore enjoined to determine whether (1) the evidence supports the finding of aggravating circumstances; (2) the death sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any arbitrary factor; and (3) the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases in the State, considering both the crime and the defendant.

The jury found two statutorily defined, aggravating circumstances present in the commission of defendant's criminal acts: (1) The murder was committed by a person who knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person by means of a weapon, device or course of action which would normally be hazardous to the lives of more than one person; and (2) the murder was committed upon one or more persons at random and without apparent motive. The jury specified that the two aggravating circumstances existed with respect to each of the six counts of murder and that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstances. The jury then proceeded to fix the penalty at death. The record provides substantial evidential support for the jury's findings. Similarly, the record reveals no evidence undermining the jury's verdict by reason of the influence of passion, prejudice, or any arbitrary factor.

Finally, we conclude that defendant's sentence of death is not excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases in this State, considering both the crime and the defendant.8 Since the

[ 717 P.2d 35 ]

jury determined that Mrs. Ford was legally guilty of the crimes charged against her, thereby negating the defense of innocence by reason of insanity, it is not for this Court to diminish her punishment because of a conflict in the evidence regarding defendant's mental deficiencies. Suffice it to say that a jury consisting of impartial, fairminded people could reasonably have concluded, on the basis of competent trial evidence, that defendant never proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the presumption of sanity was rebutted. In every other respect, defendant's sentence is proportionate to other death sentences imposed on Nevada defendants. See, e.g., Wilson v. State, 101 Nev. 452, 705 P.2d 151 (1985); Gallego v. State, supra; Bishop v. State, 95 Nev. 511, 597 P.2d 273 (1979); Rogers v. State, 101 Nev. 457, 705 P.2d 664 (1985); Miranda v. State, 101 Nev. 562, 707 P.2d 1121 (1985).

We have carefully examined the other nuances involved in the issues raised by defendant and conclude that they provide no basis for relief.


Having concluded that Mrs. Ford was fairly tried, convicted and sentenced, we affirm in all respects the judgment of conviction and sentences imposed thereon.9

GUNDERSON and YOUNG, JJ., and WENDELL10 and ROBISON,11 District Judges, concur.


1. Actually seven persons ultimately died as a result of impact with the vehicle driven by the defendant. The State elected not to amend the information as it existed at the time of trial. The murder counts therefore remained at six.

2. The newspaper articles appeared in the Nevada State Journal, Reno Evening Gazette and Reno Gazette Journal, newspapers having circulation in the Reno area. Although reference was on occasion found among the articles to "Thanksgiving Day Massacre," the "death car" and analogies to a "battlefield," it is to the media's credit that most of the reporting could be appropriately characterized as informative, restrained, non-inflammatory and even-handed. One article covering the memorial service for the victims referred to remembering the defendant with understanding rather than bitterness or outrage. Other articles addressed defendant's claim of accident and her questionable mental capacity. In sum, the pre-trial publicity attending this incident of such high public interest could not be accurately termed uniformly detrimental to Mrs. Ford by any means.

3. The defense commissioned a survey involving a telephone poll of some 380 persons in the Reno area. This patently unscientific exercise did reveal that 97 per cent of the people contacted were aware of the incident.

4. Defendant also proceeded through trial under a secondary theory of accident. This theory was of slight consequence considering the unrefuted evidence of the mechanically sound condition of the vehicle and such declarations and admissions by the defendant as: "I will get you honkies," "I deliberately planned to get as many as possible. A Lincoln Continental can do a whole lot of damage, can't it?," "How many did I get?," "The more dead the better. Give the mortuaries the business. That's the American way. Did I get 50? How many did I get? I hope 75."

5. During the latter stages of trial, defense counsel informed the trial judge that his client intended to take the stand contrary to his advice. Defense counsel contended that defendant's decision to take the stand was untimely and urged the court to deny her the opportunity to testify. Alternatively, counsel requested that Mrs. Ford receive a psychiatric examination. The trial judge recognized the constitutional right of the defendant to testify on her own behalf, Alicea v. Gagnon,675 F.2d 913 (7th Cir.1982), and that a denial of the right to so testify, even against her attorney's advice, is reversible error. Ingle v. State, 92 Nev. 104, 546 P.2d 598 (1976). Nevertheless, the judge carefully canvassed Mrs. Ford concerning her understanding of the consequences involved in taking the stand prior to denying the relief sought by counsel. Counsel's secondary request for a psychiatric evaluation of his client was made without specifications of incompetence. In any event, the judge was satisfied that Mrs. Ford had remained competent throughout trial to that point.

6. While certain segments of the defendant's testimony may be described as somewhat bizarre, it is doubtful that they could be safely characterized as the unmistakable outpourings of a psychotic mind. For instance, given Mrs. Ford's views on religion and spirit matters, it is not altogether clear, as claimed by defense counsel, that she considered herself to be the solitary embodiment of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the articulate defendant also displayed the mind of one who is decidedly above average in intelligence. In any event, it is important to remember that the jury had extensive exposure to Mrs. Ford throughout trial and, considering the defendant's testimony and the conflicting views of the trial experts, determined that she satisfied the applicable law concerning the standard of competence to commit a criminal act.

7. NRS 177.055(2)(d) was amended to abolish the proportionality review requirement. This amendment took effect on June 6, 1985. 1985 Stats. ch. 527 § 1, at 1597-1598. The prohibition against ex post facto laws requires that we apply the law as it existed when the crime was committed. See Goldsworthy v. Hannifin, 86 Nev. 252, 468 P.2d 350 (1970). In Goldsworthy we held that an act amending parole eligibility could not be applied to the detriment of a defendant whose crime was committed before the amendment took effect. Id. at 256-257, 468 P.2d 350. Because Mrs. Ford's act took place well before June 6, 1985, we must conduct a proportionality review of her sentences.

8. Notwithstanding our disposition of this appeal, we do not perceive this case to be among the brightest stars in the judicial firmament. The senseless nature of Mrs. Ford's conduct, coupled with her troubled and poignant history as wife and mother, lead us to conclude that the better course would have been a negotiated resolution assuring society of the defendant's permanent sequestration. Such a resolution would have been just considering the ambivalent nuances of her mental condition and the unrelenting obsession of a mother deprived of her child that haunted her life for many years prior to her unfocused act of vengeance. A partial list of direct trial costs involving special disbursements totaled $274,494. These costs do not include such allocable costs as attorneys fees attributable to the district attorney's and public defender's offices, judicial salaries, judicial support staff salaries and the prolonged commitment of limited physical resources and facilities. All of the foregoing items are substantially increased by costs incident to this appeal and will continue to increase by future expenditures on such matters as determining the point at which Mrs. Ford will be competent to receive her decreed punishment.

9. Under Nevada law, a person may not be punished for a public offense while incompetent. NRS 178.400. It is clear, therefore, that the execution of sentence shall not occur absent an appropriate predetermination of competence.

10. The Honorable Michael J. Wendell, judge of the Eighth Judicial District Court, was designated by the Governor to sit in place of Chief Justice John Mowbray, who voluntarily disqualified himself. Nev. Const. art. 6, § 4.

11. The Honorable Norman C. Robison, judge of the Ninth Judicial District Court, was designated by the Governor to sit in place of Justice Charles E. Springer, who voluntarily disqualified himself. Nev. Const. art. 6, § 4.



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