Inside Malvo's mind

November 09, 2003|By Irwin Savodnik

THE SNIPER TRIAL of Lee Boyd Malvo, the teen-ager suspected of committing a series of murders in the Washington area with John Allen Muhammad, is set to begin tomorrow. Mr. Malvo is claiming that he was insane at the time of the killings.

Also on trial will be a fundamental principal of American jurisprudence - that a person is responsible for his actions before the law. Mr. Malvo's contention that his state of mind made it impossible for him to bear such responsibility is an attempt to bypass - and discredit - this principle.

Mr. Malvo is charged with murder in the shooting death Oct. 14, 2002, of FBI analyst Linda Franklin in a Home Depot parking lot in Fairfax County, Va. He was 17 at the time. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

The insanity defense will color the entire trial, which was moved to Chesapeake, Va. Mr. Malvo's attorney, Craig S. Cooley, will find one or more psychiatrists who will present their bona fides to the court and then testify that, in their professional opinion, the "patient" was unable to render a reasonable judgment at the time of the murder because he was not in his right mind.

Robert F. Horan Jr., the Fairfax County attorney who referred to Mr. Malvo's psychiatric defense as "late-blooming insanity," will then parade his "experts" before the court. The entire nature of the proceedings will be shifted from a question of guilt to one of diagnosis.

At the heart of Mr. Cooley's argument is the contention that his client fell under the spell of Mr. Muhammad, who "indoctrinated" him, thereby depriving Mr. Malvo of any ability to think for himself. Mr. Muhammad is on trial for murder in Virginia Beach, Va., in another of the 10 Washington-area sniper killings.

It's not clear what Mr. Cooley means by "indoctrination" - although he is clearly not alone in using this tactic. It was a concept that figured prominently in the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. Ms. Hearst, accused of bank robbery, claimed that she had been kidnapped and held captive for 57 days, during which she was indoctrinated - that word again - by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In spite of such horrific circumstances, Ms. Hearst was convicted. For now, no such circumstances appear to apply to Mr. Malvo.

For Mr. Malvo's insanity defense to succeed, Mr. Cooley must show that Mr. Malvo could not have been criminally culpable. The central issue in this whole matter, though, rests on the question of precisely how this particular insanity defense extinguishes Mr. Malvo's criminal culpability. Apparently, the idea is that Mr. Malvo's thinking was so confused, so rife with fragmented thought processes, false beliefs, extreme emotions and bizarre logic, that he could not understand that he would end the life of a human being by pulling a trigger.

The defense will assert that Mr. Malvo was "suffering" from a mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition characterized by anxiety, bad memories, frightening dreams and avoidance and feelings of detachment.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cooley, it doesn't matter whether Mr. Malvo was brainwashed, indoctrinated or under the spell of someone else. The critical matter here is that Mr. Malvo was not, and has never been, mentally ill.

Schizophrenia, one of many psychiatric conditions, is diagnosed by disorganized speech, among other signs. Psychiatrists regard such behavior as diseased when all they are really saying is that such speech is weird or obnoxious. But the standards of "normal" behavior change over time.

Many argue that advances in neuroscience will eventually reveal how the brain becomes disrupted and how those disruptions cause mental illnesses. That position falls apart quickly when we recognize that the whole array of mental illnesses presented in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders uses criteria based on the way a person behaves.

But such criteria are inherently social - and political. A lump in the breast, a shadow on the lung or an irregular heartbeat are not. In psychiatry, troubling behaviors are not mere signs of a disorder; they are the substance of it. From this perspective, a person who speaks to God is said to be praying, while one who hears God speak to him is schizophrenic.

If the Malvo case turns out to be built on the insanity defense, it will be yet another attack on the core notion of human responsibility. We have seen the erosion of this central human virtue as the struggle for "rights" has replaced it. The jury in this trial should reject Mr. Cooley's attempt to divest his client of the very trait that makes such a tribunal possible in the first place.

Irwin Savodnik is a psychiatrist who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has testified in civil trials.

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