Jody and Donna were his first two victims. As they sat in Jody’s car in front of Donna’s house on a warm and muggy late summer evening in the Bronx, probably sharing stories of romance, David Berkowitz walked up with a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver and prematurely ended Jody’s life and critically wounded Donna. During the following year, he terrorized New York City, killing six people and wounding seven before finally being apprehended on August 10, 1977. During his spree of violence and death, Berkowitz sent letters to the media, mocking police and proclaiming himself as the Son of Sam. After his arrest, Berkowitz claimed that he was obeying orders of a demon conveyed to him by the dog of his neighbor, Sam.
Berkowitz was convicted of multiple counts of murder. He eventually admitted that the story about canine-delivered demon messages was a hoax, and an unconvincing one at that.
The Son of Sam’s attempt to dissimulate craziness isn’t unusual for someone facing serious criminal charges. His alleged delusion about doggie-dispatched demon messages didn’t pass the jury’s “smell test.” (As will be seen, such a florid symptom of psychosis frequently has a paper train and a prior history of rearing its head before a tragic occurrence.) In most cases, figuring out whether a defendant was truly psychotic when he committed the offense or is feigning illness requires considerable forensic experience and the application of several instruments that objectively evaluate the defendant’s symptom validity.
Malingering is technically defined as the intentional exaggeration or falsification of symptoms, motivated by personal incentive. Clearly if a defendant is charged with a serious crime such as murder, he has an incentive to fake or distort his mental state at the time of the offense in order to escape his just desert, or at least to mitigate punishment. Although the statistics vary, research reveals that about 20% of criminal defendants deliberately exaggerate or fake their psychiatric symptomatology. It is the psychological examiner’s responsibility, then, to make sure that the defendant’s symptoms are authentic and not a manipulative gambit to avoid criminal responsibility. The task is especially difficult when the defendant has a bona fide psychiatric disorder, but still might be employing his condition and knowledge of symptoms to his legal benefit.
Take the case of Jonathan, a 30-year-old man who admitted to beating his mother Beth to death. He had a long and documented history of psychiatric illnesses. Beginning in his teenage years, he experienced auditory hallucinations and exhibited paranoid thinking. The voices taunted him such that he’d scream back at them and punch walls. He became physically aggressive at times, reacting to his paranoid beliefs. On one occasion, for instance, he was arrested for slapping a student at a junior college who, he believed, was spreading rumors about his sexual inadequacies.
A month or so before the killing, Jonathan was again psychiatrically hospitalized. As was usual, he had stopped taking his medication because of the side effects – weight gain and grogginess. After about two weeks of having been medication-free, his father Walter found Jonathan sleeping with a kitchen knife in bed. Jonathan had been receiving messages from the internet that “the end was near.” Taken back to the hospital by his parents to be evaluated, he was again admitted.
Jonathan lived with his parents and had always returned home after his hospitalizations. This time, his parents decided they would not take him back home. At a family therapy session with the facility’s social worker prior to his discharge, Jonathan was told that, upon release, he’d have to live in a residential home for psychiatric patients. His parents held open the possibility for him to return home, if he stayed on his medication and remained stable for a sustained period of time.
This didn’t sit well with Jonathan, who was sullen and angry on the day of his release from the hospital. Two days after being at the residential home, he complained to his parents that “the food sucked” and “nobody talks to me…I’m scared.”
Although both parents had decided that he couldn’t return home, Jonathan for some reason believed his mother was the driving force behind the decision. On the evening of the murder, Beth picked Jonathan up from the residential home and took him out to eat. They then went grocery shopping, after which Beth drove home to drop off the groceries before taking Jonathan back to his residence.
At the house, Jonathan erupted. He described the murder to me, how he first grabbed his mother’s neck from behind and began choking her. Soon, she lost consciousness and fell. Beth was still breathing, but by now, Jonathan was fulminating with agitation and rage. He stomped her until she was breathless, dead.
I was asked by Jonathon’s defense attorney to examine Jonathan’s mental condition at the time of the killing and to opine whether there was a mental state defense, such as insanity (was he incapable of knowing right from wrong?)
During my interviews with Jonathan, he said that at the time of the attack, he believed his mother was a demon who wanted to destroy him. That’s why she sent him to live “in that dangerous place” (i.e., the residential facility.) He continued, “I just wanted to kill her… I couldn’t stop. I did it….” He admitted to being angry with her just before the assault, as she readied to take him back to his new residence. But, he said, he also “feared for my life” and figured, irrationally, that he’d be safer with his mother gone.
As I said, crimes involving an individual with a chronic mental illness are the most difficult when it comes to assessing for possible malingering. In Jonathan’s case, he had a history of psychosis, which included delusional thinking, including the sort of beliefs he said prompted the deadly assault on his mother. Walter told me that Jonathan once asked him, “Is mom the devil?’
The question was whether Jonathan’s delusional thinking was so extreme and irrational at the time of the killing that it prompted his murderous behavior. I conducted a number of psychological tests on him designed to measure the degree of his psychopathology, but most important in this case, to assess the validity of his symptoms and their intensity, and to help me gauge the degree of his transparency during the interviews with me. One such test was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-Reformulated Form. It includes a multitude of validity scales to assess for symptom exaggeration and the defendant’s degree of openness and honest responding to questions about his emotions, thinking and self-esteem. I was able to compare his scores with those of individuals who genuinely are mentally ill and who responded directly and truthfully to the test items.
Jonathan’s scores on the MMPI-2-RF were in the range that suggested he was exaggerating his symptoms, including his psychotic ones. I then utilized a specialized interview format that assesses for the consistency and genuineness of psychotic symptomatology, the Structured Interview of Reported Symptoms, or SIRS-2. It allowed me to evaluate whether he was reporting a degree of symptoms that were, for instance, rare, subtle or blatant to such a degree that they’re empirically unlikely to be genuine, even for a mentally ill individual. Again, the results strongly suggested that Jonathan was exaggerating his symptomatology.
Subsequent to the testing, I discussed with Jonathan the results of his testing and further explored his symptoms and mental state at the time of the killing. Jonathan didn’t understand the testing results and simply asked, “You don’t believe me?” He continued to claim that his life was in danger at the residence. “She put me there. I wanted to go home…She always wanted me out of the house… me…in hospitals… she wouldn’t let me come home… she wanted to get rid of me.”
Given the results of the testing and my interviews with Jonathan, it was clear that he suffered from schizophrenia, a major mental illness. Nonetheless, I concluded that it was his poor self-control that led to the homicide, not delusional and irrational beliefs about his mother. I found no clinical evidence that he irrationally believed his mother was an impending threat to his life. Although suffering from a serious and chronic mental illness that likely compromised his ability to control his anger and see things objectively, Jonathan killed her as a result of his rage and resentment at having to reside outside the family household.
Still, Jonathan‘s mental illness did have a mitigating effect. The jury found him sane but guilty of second degree murder, not first degree, and not with premeditation and deliberation.
In a future blog, I’ll dig deeper into the complexities of the insanity defense.