Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Did Casey Kill Caylee?: Could There Be an Insanity Defense Coming?

Did Casey Kill Caylee?: Could There Be an Insanity Defense Coming?


imageSince my two previous postings on this case several months ago, the skeletonized remains of little Caylee Anthony were discovered by a county meter reader a mere hundred yards or so from her home. Now we know that Caylee is in fact deceased, and that, according to authorities, was the victim of premeditated murder. Police have been zeroing in on the Anthony home as the possible site of Caylee's killing, linking to that location many of the forensic clues found at the grisly scene where dismembered bones and a tiny human skull with duct tape still covering the place where the mouth and lips once were.

Meanwhile, Casey remains incarcerated. Her brother, Lee, was deposed recently by lawyers representing supposed "nanny," Zenaida "Zanny" Gonzalez, who denies having ever even met Casey let alone being the regular babysitter for Caylee Anthony. Grandparents Cindy and George are refusing to participate in the Gonzalez defamation law suit depositions, citing as their reason psychological fragility. The judge in that case has given them twenty days to produce psychiatric documentation to support this claim. Since George Anthony, Casey's father, reportedly became despondent and actively suicidal following the discovery and identification of his granddaughter's remains, being sequestered for almost two weeks in a psychiatric hospital, such documentation may indeed be forthcoming for him, if not for his wife.

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One curious and possibly telling comment made by Casey's brother Lee during his deposition for the civil suit last week was his recollection that Caylee's alleged abductor, "Zanny," had, according to Casey, commandeered her personal password at myspace.com, changing it to "timer55," and directed her via the internet and text messaging to go to certain locations, threatening the lives of family members if she refused. He recalls Casey telling him that she believes Caylee was taken by Gonzalez "to teach her a lesson." What lesson might that be? And why? Lee Anthony reiterated under oath: "I believe everything my sister tells me." Lee himself seems to believe that "timer55" holds some sinister, secret numeric meaning. What might this say, if anything, about brother Lee's state of mind? And possibly Casey's?

I do not know whether Ms. Anthony is guilty as charged and have had no direct involvement in this matter. Nor can I speak definitively to her state of mind past or present or that of her family without having interviewed them directly. However, as I mentioned previously, this case brings to mind a clinical syndrome called Shared Psychotic Disorder or folie a deux, trois, or perhaps quatre. This unusual phenomenon typically involves a primary person or "inducer" becoming delusional and others close to her or him to differing degrees adopting that distortion of reality. Of the four immediate family members, George, a former homicide detective, may be the least in denial about what happened, which could explain his suicidal reaction: some studies suggest that depressed individuals perceive reality more clearly than non-depressed people. But it would appear that both Lee and his mother, Cindy, if not consciously covering up, may still be under the spell--despite having been separated for months from Casey. If Casey could be depicted to a jury as having been clinically paranoid at the time she allegedly killed her daughter Caylee-- as opposed to being perceived as merely selfish, immature and manipulatively lying to escape responsibility and punishment for this evil deed-- might this be the basis for a forthcoming insanity defense?

Meanwhile, prosecutors have for now apparently decided not to reinstate the death penalty in this case, influenced in part by a legal brief by a former member of the defense team which hypothesizes that Casey could have been depressed and manic around the time of the alleged crime. In my first posting, I raised this same question, which, without extensively evaluating such a defendant, is impossible to answer. Could Casey possibly suffer from bipolar disorder? If it were convincingly shown that the alleged crime occurred during a severe manic or depressive episode--either of which can sometimes include delusions--this could conceivably support an insanity defense.

In the unlikely event there were to be an insanity defense in the Casey Anthony case, her attorneys would need to prove that Casey could not differentiate between right or wrong at the time of the alleged crime, or did not appreciate the nature and quality of her evil deed. The insanity defense is quite difficult: Less than 1% of jury trials attempt to prove legal insanity. Of those, only about one-in-four succeed. The finding of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) is generally a hard-sell to juries. The defendant may be demonstrably mentally ill, or, here in California, clearly in a state of diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime, yet still not technically legally insane. Legal insanity is a high bar. The mere presence of serious mental disorder or psychosis does not necessarily meet the stringent standard for legal insanity. Nor does the diagnosis of a personality disorder alone or having been under the influence of or addicted to some licit or illicit substance when committing the crime.

Florida's insanity defense law, like California's, allows defendants to acknowledge that they committed the act for which they have been charged, but argue that they should not be found guilty because they have a mental illness or defect. The defendant's mental state must have been so severe as to prevent her from knowing what she was doing or the consequences of her behavior when committing the crime. Alternatively, the defendant may have understood what she was doing and the consequences of her actions, but can still invoke the insanity defense if she did not understand that her actions were wrong. As in California and most other states, the Florida insanity defense is based on the M'Naghten rule, named after a mid-nineteenth century British case in which a severely delusional man, Daniel. M'Naghten, attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister, mistakenly killing instead the Prime Minister's secretary. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but due to public outcry, the so-called M'Naghten standard was established, requiring that for such a defense, the defendant, due to a "defect of reason," must be proven to have not known the nature and quality of his or her actions or that those actions were wrong.

Controversial as it is, the insanity defense goes to the very heart of the notion of personal responsibility: Are we always fully responsible for our behavior? Are there certain disorders, diseases, syndromes, dangerous states of mind, or mitigating circumstances that can negate or reduce personal responsibility? If so, what are they? And where do we as a society draw that line? These are precisely the sort of complex existential, philosophical, psychological and legal questions Casey Anthony's defense team would have to persuasively address were they to decide to invoke the rare and risky insanity defense.

 

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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