Thursday, August 19, 1999

Christie Blatchford

p. A6.

Witnesses demonstrate capacity for self-delusion

People in love believe what they want to believe

Murder? OK. Whatever. But Transvestites, icky.

This was the stunning bare bones of Claudia Taylor's evidence yesterday at a hearing to determine whether her former lover, Marcello Palma, was legally sane on the Victoria Day three years ago when he shot three prostitutes to death in downtown Toronto.

In brief, Ms. Taylor testified that what finally prompted her to call it quits on their sexual relationship, and brought her to the point where she is now only a friend to Mr. Palma, was less the belated knowledge that he had taken three human lives, and more the recent revelation that he had been consorting with male hookers who dress as women.

As prosecutor Christine McGoey put it, with trademark precision, "So you could get past the fact that he'd killed three people?" Ms. Taylor nodded in agreement.

Mr. Palma has admitted killing the three — 25-year-old Brenda Ludgate, 19-year-old transvestite hooker Shawn Keegan and transsexual prostitute Thomas (Deanna) Wilkinson, who was 31 — but is pleading not guilty.

His lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, is now attempting to prove that Mr. Palma should be found not criminally responsible for the killings, is expected to argue his client was in a dissociate state, and will later be calling extensive psychiatric evidence to bolster this position.

But in these early days of the proceeding, Mr. Greenspan has called only two witnesses, first Mr. Palma's wife, Rosa, and yesterday his mistress, Ms. Taylor, the goal to lay the groundwork for the psychiatrists to come, to show that the two key women in Mr. Palma's life knew him as a tortured soul, severely depressed and sometimes suicidal, who was under immense stress before the killings.

The women are not, of course, on trial. Nor are they responsible for what he did. Their testimony does, however, provide a window into the sort of man Mr. Palma is, and arguably supports the prosecution view of him as a narcissist with a simmering rage, and not as someone who was essentially, off his rocker. If nothing else, the two women have ably demonstrated the remarkable human capacity for self-delusion.

People who are in love believe what they believe.

Thus, it's hard to find fault with either Mrs. Palma, who stuck by her man through one affair (just six months into their marriage) and his acknowledged visits to prostitutes and his unexplained, protracted absences — she gave him the boot only after she found out about the second affair with Ms. Taylor — or with Ms. Taylor, who knew he was married, with a new baby, when she took up with him and had an abortion, and who saw evidence of his frightening temper, but wrote it off to his great guilt, and felt sorry for him.

Both women knew Mr. Palma could be violent and that he had a gun collection; each happily persisted in seeing him as a loving fellow. In fact, each recited that same story — of how Mr. Palma allegedly had volunteered at a local food bank — as though it demonstrated his goodness, when, in fact, what it suggested to me was only that he had modestly told each of them the tale. Each woman testified about lengthy episodes of his weeping; in their emotional lexicon, a crying man equals a tender soul.

But fair enough; who hasn't been duped in love?

It is afterwards, after the murders, that the women's conduct is better examined.

Mrs. Palma said that, a few days after the prostitutes had been killed but before Mr. Palma was wanted by Toronto police, she may have been told by either Mr. Palma's brother, Frank, or a friend that her husband had confessed to killing them; but regardless, she spent a night hugging with him. Ms. Taylor upped the ante.

The day after the slayings, she said, she saw Mr. Palma, noticed awry but that he was quiet; they went stargazing in a park. the day after that, she met him at his office, found it in a mess, and that he told her he had "spazzed out on Monday." Two days later, they spent a long day together, going for a lazy lunch, swimming at his brother's condo. The next day, he said he had done "something stupid," something "bad, really bad." She suspected, she said, that maybe he'd been in a fight and that the "guy went unconscious, like maybe I thought … he killed the guy, you know."

He wouldn't tell her more, except that he was going to see a lawyer, and she didn't want to think about it."

When she paged him the next day, he didn't answer — he was, it turns out on the run — and eventually, arrested in Halifax and charged with the three murders.

But Ms. Taylor was not dissuaded. She visited Mr. Palma in jail, and gave him a dictionary and a love note in which she urged him to do his exercises and eat properly and told him, "You are driving me crazy, but it's a good crazy."

She kept writing him in jail and the forensic units where he was assessed and never once did she ask if he had done the deeds. "I didn't know, I didn't want to know, I never ask him about it," she said.

It was during one of these visits last summer that Ms. Taylor and Mr. Palma were getting so intimate that the nurses had to come, as Ms. McGoey put it, "to tell you to cool it a bit?" Suppressing a smile, Ms. Taylor said that was true. "You were feeling very good about Mr. Palma" in the summer of 1998, weren't you, Ms. McGoey asked? "Yes," said Ms. Taylor. You stuck by him for all that time? Ms McGoey asked. "That's the kind of person I am," said Ms. Taylor.

It was only this past spring, on the first day of the trial, she said, that she learned things about him that prompted her to stop thinking of him as her lover. What things? "That he was frequenting prostitutes, transvestites?"

In redirect, Mr. Greenspan bravely attempted to repair some of the damage, to show that it was finally reading that Mr. Palma had admitted the killings, which turned the tide for her. "And the fact that he was a murderer?" OH, said Ms. Taylor, "I don't say that was right of him."

She is a very pretty girl, Ms. Taylor, looks every inch the perky stewardess she now is — hair in a round brown bob, trim figure in a navy jacket and a crisp white shirt. There is an air of professional courtesy about her. Nothing Ms. McGoey said to her, and Ms McGoey is a formidable force, rattled her pleasant demeanour. Often in her testimony, she smiled, it seemed in fond memory of Mr. Palma.

They are just friends now, she said, and added, "I'll always love the person that I knew." She last spoke to him, by phone, just a couple of weeks ago. My guess is if she had gone to see him last night, he would have wept, and she would have , too. It is good to vent.

Yesterday was an alarming day, and afterward, I spoke to a smart man about what constitutes a moral vacuum; I was thinking of all the decisions Ms. Taylor had made about Mr. Palma: to sleep with him, his wife and baby forgotten; the abortion; her steadfast refusal to ask if he had killed the three women; her determined blindness. He said there was no evil in her, that she was merely young — she's just 27 now — and uncomplicated and, as the psychiatrists say, without insight. But I wondered. Because evil has not rushed in to fill the empty spaces, does it make them less empty?

In her note to Mr. Palma, that one she slipped into the dictionary she bought him and in which she urged him to do his exercises, Claudia Taylor wrote: "I just want you to take care of yourself." My hunch is, she needn't have bothered. Mr. Palma found Rosa; he found her. He takes care of himself just fine.

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