A judge in Harford County may have to determine whether a young girl diagnosed as having as many as 14 personalities is competent to testify against her father, who is accused of sexually abusing her.
Assistant State's Attorney Diana A. Brooks said she was not aware of any similar case in Maryland that depends on the ability of an alleged victim diagnosed with what is known as multiple personality disorder to provide critical testimony.
Testimony from the girl, now 10, is crucial to the case, Brooks said. Her father, 54, is accused of abusing her, including sexual abuse, for several years.
The case has similarities to one in Oshkosh, Wis., last year that gained international attention.
That case involved a 27-year-old alleged rape victim who had as many as 18 personalities. The woman, whose condition was present before the alleged attack, was allowed to testify against the accused attacker even though she changed personalities on the witness stand.
"L.A. Law," the popular television drama, recently aired an episode based on a similar fictitious case.
The Wisconsin case was believed to be the first in the nation in which a person diagnosed as having multiple personalities testified as an alleged victim.
The accused attacker in the Wisconsin case was convicted in November, but the verdict quickly was overturned because defense attorneys were not allowed to have a psychiatrist examine the woman before the trial. The prosecutor then dismissed the charges, saying a retrial would be harmful to the woman.
During an upcoming pretrial hearing in the Harford case, the attorney for the father is expected to attempt to use the diagnosis to have the girl ruled incompetent and unable to testify.
Brooks said more than one psychiatrist offered opinions about the girl's mental health as part of evaluations after the arrest of the suspect in November 1990. But, Brooks added, "all of these diagnoses don't agree."
She declined to give further details, but said the diagnoses differed enough for her to conclude that the girl is not exhibiting multiple personalities.
Also, Brooks said, the defense strategy "is a double-edged sword" because of assumptions made by the psychiatrists that such a disorder probably would be caused by some sort of abuse.
John Henderson, a public defender representing the father, declined to discuss the case. Officials at the Harford County Department of Social Services, who worked on the case, also declined comment, citing confidentiality rules.
To protect the identity of the girl, The Evening Sun is not using her name or her father's.
Dr. Robert Temple, a psychiatrist and director of adult in-patient services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, said that in 80 to 90 percent of people diagnosed as having multiple personalities, the disorder can be traced to some form of abuse.
He said such people escape from trauma by creating "alters," the term for separate personalties. The longer the abuse occurs, he said, the more personalities emerge.
Temple, who said Sheppard Pratt is establishing a separate unit devoted to the disorder, acknowledged that there is debate about whether the condition is a genuine illness. But he said a "greater majority" of professionals think it is real.
Temple, who had no knowledge of the Harford case, said he suspected a defense attorney would have a difficult time proving the girl was incompetent, even if it could be shown she had multiple personalities.
"Generally speaking, these people do have an understanding of what is reality," Temple said.
The maneuvering in the case, and the prospect of the girl being ruled unable to testify, illustrate the complexity of prosecuting sexual abuse cases involving children.
Even before a hearing on the competency issue, scheduled for Aug. 14 in Harford County Circuit Court, a civil hearing has been scheduled for Monday. A juvenile court judge has been asked by the Department of Social Services to determine whether the child is "in need of assistance," which may mean making a finding about whether the alleged abuse occurred.
The outcome of the juvenile court hearing, though not strictly related to the criminal case, may negatively affect the criminal case, if, for instance, the judge were to rule that abuse did not occur, Brooks said.
The child is living in Aberdeen with her mother, who, according to court records in the case, separated from her husband before the alleged abuse.
The father has been in the Harford County Detention Center since his arrest.
The father was indicted on seven criminal charges, including second-degree rape, child abuse, sodomy and incest. The indictment alleges that abuse occurred in the father's home between the summer of 1987 and October 1990. Charges relating to alleged sexual abuse cover April 1989 to October 1990.