Should people with multiple personalities be allowed to take the stand as witnesses in criminal trials?
That's a key legal question ina Harford Circuit Court case in which a 10-year-old girl diagnosed with at least three personalities alleges that her father sexually abused her for two years.
Paul F. Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor and expert in trial procedures, said courts nationwide are permitting witnesses with psychological disorders to testify, leaving it up to jurors to decide if the witness should be believed.
"The old rules of incompetence are going out the window," Rothstein said.
But a psychologist who testified at a hearing on the case Thursday says a new evaluation of the witness is warranted.
The professor called the Harford case "noteworthy, not precedent-setting," even though county prosecutors say they don't know of another one like it in Maryland. A sexual assault case in Wisconsin in which an adult witness had multiple personalities was dismissed last December.
In the Harford case, lawyers for the defendant -- public defenders George Litman and John Henderson -- want the girl to undergo an evaluation to determine if she is competent to testify. The girl has taken at least three diagnostic evaluations during the last two years.
"We're talking about a 10-year-old child who is fragile at best," said Dr. Lawrence J. Raifman, a Baltimore clinical psychologist who testified at Thursday's hearingfor the defense. "I think you owe it to the person to see if she meets the test to come to the witness stand."
Circuit Judge Cypert O.Whitfill quizzed Raifman on how the court will be able to tell if the girl is truthful and which personality isspeaking.
Raifman said he does not know how reliable the girl will be because the girl's personalities have not been "integrated" into one, a goal of treatment for people with the disorder.
He also told the judge that stressfulsituations, such as testifying in a courtroom, can trigger a switch in personalities.
"There is a recognized risk in putting a child in a stressful situation," he said.
The hearing was postponed untilNov. 8 after the court stenographer had to leave the courthouse uponlearning her dog had died. Another stenographer was unavailable.
The name of the defendant, a 54-year-old Forest Hill resident, has not been published to protect the victim.
The man was indicted in November 1990 on charges of child abuse, incest, sodomy, unnatural and perverted sexual practices, third-degree sexual offense and two counts of second-degree sexual offense. If convicted of all charges, the man faces a maximum sentence of 95 years.
The county Department of Social Services informed the Harford Sheriff's Office in November 1990 that a foster parent caring for the girl had reported to the department that the girl spoke of sexual activity with her father, court records say.
The girl reported that her father had taken numerous pictures of her without her clothes on and had videotaped her masturbating, court records say. The girl also said her father fondled her, and they had anal and oral sex. The alleged incidents involving the girl occurred in 1989 and 1990.
Assistant State's Attorney Diana A. Brooks said after the hearing that she would "consider" the defense's request. But Angela Eaves, the girl's attorney, said she does not think another evaluation is necessary.
"It's not clear at this point what that (evaluation) would yield," said Eaves, of the Legal Aid Bureau. "They would have to show that before a judge would order anotherevaluation."
Raifman, the clinical psychologist who is director of psychology at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, testified evaluation using "play therapy" and "mock trials" would determine the girl'sability to recall accurately what happened to her.
The psychologist said the girl shows the symptoms of multiple personality disorder,including trance-like behavior, forgetfulness, different handwritingstyles, and shifts in personalities.
Raifman noted that in an evaluation conducted at the Woodbourne Center in Baltimore, it was determined the girl had as many as 16 personalities. A second evaluation, he said, concludedthat the girl had three personalities.
The second evaluation, conducted at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore,says that one personality is of a calm, quiet girl who speaks of no sexual contact with her father. But another personality is of an overactive, sexually provocative girl who says that she had sexual contact with her father. The third personality, called the "furious voice,"lashes out with anger.
The evaluations also show that the girl has been diagnosed withpost-traumatic stress disorder and hyperactivity, Raifman said.
People with multiple personality disorder suffer losses of their identity, memory and consciousness that create "gaps" in their ability to recall past events, causing them to make up stories or tell lies, Raifman said.
"It's a disorder of identity," the psychologist said. "The source of who they are is lost. . . . It's not a person in touch with reality."