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Marcello Palma, who hunted down and shot three prostitutes during a one-night killing spree that terrorized Toronto in May of 1996, was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder and imprisoned for life.

The married air-conditioning installer lost his five-year bid to be excused of criminal responsibility for the point-blank shootings on grounds of mental illness.

Mr. Palma, 34, nodded his head slightly and his eyes filled with tears when Mr. Justice David Watt of the Ontario Superior Court dismissed his alleged psychiatric symptoms as fake and declared that the killings were planned and deliberate executions.

Mr. Palma, he found, was motivated by rage over rejections by his wife and his mistress and took it out on a class of people he loathed and considered "scum" even though he was a frequent customer.

The bloodletting began at 11 p.m. on Victoria Day in 1996, when Mr. Palma picked up prostitute Brenda Ludgate in his red truck. He had already gone to the home he once shared with wife Rosa to pick up his Magnum .357 and an umbrella. It was a rainy night.

At first Mr. Palma wanted oral sex, but changed his mind after driving Ms. Ludgate, 25, to a dark, empty lot behind a Parkdale warehouse. He shouted at her to get out of the truck. When she refused, he went around and pulled her out, struck her and shot her in the back of the head.

Leaving her in a pool of blood, he climbed back into the truck and drove to a downtown strip he knew to be frequented by male transvestite hookers.

By 11:50 he had lured 19-year-old Shawn Keegan down a deserted outdoor stairwell and shot him twice, in the front and back of his head.

Emerging onto the street with his umbrella shielding his face, he continued down the road and a short while later encountered 31-year-old Tom (Deanna) Wilkinson.

He took Mr. Wilkinson behind another building and shot him in the face from a distance of less than a metre.

Afterward, he confided in a friend that he was sure nobody saw him do it.

Judge Watt rejected the testimony of psychiatric experts called by the defence, saying he was not convinced Mr. Palma suffered from any psychotic break or dissociative episode the night of the killings.

The judge pointed out there was overwhelming evidence that Mr. Palma was in control of himself, knew what he was doing and understood the consequences.

He had admitted in psychotherapy sessions with his long-term psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Ballon, that he fantasized about killing prostitutes and street people.

Ms. Ludgate, Mr. Keegan and Mr. Wilkinson were "members of a class he had targeted for extinction. They were people he regarded as a lesser species," Judge Watt said.

The long-awaited resolution of the case provoked questions yesterday from police and prostitutes alike over why no one took action to stop Mr. Palma after he voiced his homicidal fantasies and amassed an arsenal of handguns.

"The question is, what kind of responsibility a health professional has when they know you have a propensity to violence and are collecting guns?" sex-trade worker Anastasia Kuzyk asked reporters outside court yesterday.

Mr. Palma's parents and brother, Frank, watched silently as Mr. Palma was told he would spend his life in prison, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years.

Brushing past reporters outside, Frank Palma offered the family's only comment. "We are very sad," he said.

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