Late in 1996 when I was still a psychological assistant, I was asked to assist in helping a well-known forensic psychologist to evaluate a man known for instigating terrorist acts in small suburbs of Los Angeles. He enjoyed making pipe-bombs and letting them off. The explosives never escalated beyond that point, but that was enough in this tense atmosphere. Nineteen ninety three saw the first Trade Center bombing, and anger and dissention seemed to be mounting enough to keep the federal agencies on their toes.
I was delighted to be asked to help with the evaluation since I had planned on becoming a forensic psychologist with a bent toward neuropsychology. Basically the referral question was whether or not this man was mentally competent to stand trial.
Competency can be a difficult evaluation. According to Frye, the standard by which this evaluation is measured, to be competent a person must have known at the time of the crime that he or she was doing a crime and that it was wrong. They must also be able to assist their attorney in their defense.
The man in question, a compilation of two different people for this article, had been known by various police departments for many years, but he had never “shown his hand” so to speak until he blew up a building in a small suburb that had been marked for demolition in California. The names of the perpetrators and certain identifying facts have been changed to protect his privacy and that of his family. I will call him Mr. C.
Why the bomber would want to pick this city, so out of the way and non-main stream, was never really known, other than he reported during his evaluation that he had enjoyed a nice hike in one of the beautiful open trails and decided this was the place to investigate “down home Americans.” No one had been hurt or killed, yet the police department had been building a case against Mr. C for quite a while and found it interesting, and somewhat hopeful, that this simple act of defiance, that hadn’t hurt anyone, was the moment Mr. C had decided to become careless.
My colleague and I were asked to meet him at the jail and sat opposite him separated by a Plexiglas window. We spoke to him through the glass by taking turns on the phone. He was a very large man, at least six foot five, with a large girth. He looked scruffy in the jail jumpsuit and older than his 56 years. He had tried to shave in the jail, but the accoutrements provided gave him a day-old beard. His excuse was that someone had been watching him while he performed this function, and that had made him exceedingly nervous. We took the usual information down, taking turns to ask the questions, which seemed to give him an ego rush. For some reason, I suspect that interacting with the two of us women rather than telling all this to a man was more intriguing for him and enabled him to play with our sympathies, or so he apparently thought. He cried easily, looked abashed and ashamed and more than once apologized with all his heart. I believed him; my colleague was a little more circumspect.
An evaluation usually consists of taking down current living situation, a good mental status examination including his appearance, whether or not he is oriented, his thought processes, his degree of alertness, his reality testing, his judgment and his insight. A formal history is then taken including a personal history such as when the person had been born, where and how he was brought up, his schooling record, any military record, his legal problems, arrest records, any juvenile disciplinary problems or arrests, alcohol and drug history, medical history including childhood illnesses, diseases or surgeries, suicide or homicide attempts and current functioning.
Mr. C had been born in 1940 and grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, near “the Strip”. His father had been a janitor and his mother had worked in one of the drug outlets. But she could have been a lead dancer at the Lido, he exclaimed. He had no brothers or sisters and had been considered a “loner” in school. His IQ had been in the superior range, but his strength was English, although his mathematics acumen was not to be denigrated. Sometime in middle school Mr. C. had become increasingly withdrawn from society.
In collateral information, his mother stated she noted that he was changing and becoming more introspective, unable to connect with anyone. He was also becoming more depressed and paranoid. Currently, he refused conventional psychotherapy or the use of any medications from a prison psychiatrist.
We noted he had been picked up outside the latest bombing site by a uniform police who noticed he was picking up pieces of the wreckage and handing them over personally to crime techs to assist in the investigation, even though he was asked to leave the scene. Finally, officers became intrigued by this interfering person and took him to the back of a police car where he immediately confessed to having done the crime. Shocked and somewhat skeptic, they took him in where forensic examiners discovered soot and explosive particles on his hands and clothing.
Mr. C was a voracious reader and seemed intent upon explaining to me how Batman ruled his life. He identified completely with Bruce Wayne, Batman’s doppelganger, and had decided early on that he, Mr. C., would take in all fears, just as Bruce Wayne had done, to overcome them and use them for the benefit of mankind. Part of these fears included loud bangs and the destruction of evil.
Even in the sterile atmosphere of the jail; the steel stools, the grayish walls and picture-less atmosphere where he was incarcerated, he appeared not to be affected by the drab. He focused instead upon an inner world that bordered on paranoid schizophrenia or simply a wild and crazy fantasy life. It was hard to determine. He denied hearing voices or seeing things other people told him were not there. His medical records indicated an MRI and a CAT scan that showed no gross brain disorder, but a Luria Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery was in order to make sure the finer problems undetectable by medical examination or equipment, could be revealed. Slight memory loss, inability to remember words, perhaps sight, sound, or hearing problems could be uncovered where the medical examination had failed and these almost undetectable changes could be reported to medical personnel for further evaluation.
His mental status examination indicated that Mr. C. was scruffy but clean, oriented to person, place and reason for examination. He appeared to be present and alert. His speech and language were clear with no tics or stuttering. His thought processes, however, appeared to be somewhat bazaar, indicative of Paranoid Schizophrenia, but Mr. C. was aware of how he sounded and that others might not buy into these delusions, making it hard to make a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He reported correctly that before he his arrest currently resided in a small hut an outlet just on the edge of a weed encrusted bike lane. He further reported quite straightforwardly that no one ever bothered him there and he was basically homeless except for this covering over his head. He had no real ideas of reference, circumstantial speech or word salad.
The rest of his history was gleaned from collateral sources. There was little other history other than he had never married and to his knowledge had no children. He didn’t remember attending high school, although he was told he had. He was also told he had done very well in high school and had been accepted to UCLA, another fact of which he was clueless. His grades were disparate some A’s, some B’s and even some C’s in mathematics, but generally good. He didn’t like to study and took many exams without even cracking a book. These records were backed up and documented.
It is very difficult to do testing in a jail setting. Unable to touch some of the testing material, whole subtests of the Wechsler measures cannot be used. The Block Design for instance, where blocks are placed in particular configurations according to pictures in a book, cannot be used. It basically becomes a verbal measure from which an idea of the intelligence can be gleaned. The Bender-Gestalt cannot be executed, either. It requires a pencil and white paper where the client recreates geometric figures positioned in front of him or her. There is no normative sample of these tests for this population. So, my colleague and I simply gave him the examination for competency to stand trial.
We asked him to describe his offense and I asked him how he learned to make the pipe bombs he’d used outside Lancaster and he told me simply, “Over the internet it’s simple.” He then outlined a complete and intricate formulation including ingredients and assembly that would have been difficult for me to follow. He did this with extreme pride and accomplishment in his face, showing off acumen and understanding of each facet of this procedure.
I asked him if he could tell me, therefore, the charges against him. He told me that he’d been drinking all weekend and on Monday began “feeling” he should explode something to put him back in “full form”, by which he meant ‘reality’.
The next question is: How do you plan to plead? answered, ‘not guilty’, but not “by reason of insanity.” He felt that people should beaware of the dangers of the world and how easy it is to take control physically.
When asked what he expected in sentencing, he fully expected to get off once the jury understood his reasoning.
He wasn’t able to define the roles of courtroom personnel other than his own attorney and what that person was to do for him, but he did understand that his attorney wanted him to admit he was insane. He disagreed and began a long rancor of what insanity means: not seeing the unfairness in the world, the lack of respect. I asked him if he had a good relationship with his attorney and he suddenly changed gears and announced he certainly did. Once things are explained, everything falls into place.
He felt he could cooperate fully and if this attorney did not understand what was to be done, he, Mr. C. would defend himself. There was amble indication that this defendant could disrupt courtroom proceedings, but my colleague and I found him competent to stand trial.
Mr. C. was entitled and angry. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway. His substance abuse had escalated to the point where he was delusional and vengeful.
That afternoon, it occurred to me that substance abuse in its totality, including illicit drugs, alcohol and other mood changing concoctions carried with them a real danger even stronger than the drug itself: the chance to become Bipolar, an illness that runs across the life-span, but usually shows up in the twenties to thirties with sleep onset disturbance. However if there is a co morbid or pre morbid substance abuse problem, Bipolar can show up in the forties or fifties. It is not curable. In this disorder, depressive moods are followed by wild mood swings that encompass thoughts of grandeur, hallucinations and delusions and other psychotic features, before they are usually followed again by a severe low.
It further occurs to me even now that severe substance abuse is a gold-printed invitation to Bipolar illness, probably even stronger than the genetic component it usually carries. I worked for two years on a Schizophrenic/Bipolar ward of a large hospital in Los Angeles and even further believe this to be true.
Mr. C. was competent to stand trial. He knew at the time of his crime that doing it was wrong and he knew how to assist his attorney in his defense (the generally accepted ‘competency to stand trial’ of the legal establishment). I still felt bad for him. Most schizophrenia occurs during the ages of 18 to 25. He was probably too old to acquire it at fifty-six years old. A Bipolar system seemed to be occurring. Wild delusions began to plague him and although his current medication seems to calm him, he still suffers from wondering which is the fantasy life and which is reality.
Written by Clinical Psychology Expert Witness
Expert Witness No. 2006
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