Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Art Therapy & Murder

Art therapist describes his unusual involvement in a capital murder case.

The case is tragic. A man had kidnapped his own children, murdered one, and tried to kill the other. It’s a death penalty case. The defendant's acts are unambiguous. To save his life, the defense team must focus on his mental instability. In a very unusual move, the attorneys contact an art therapist.

Dr. David E. Gussak, the therapist in question, is chair of the department of Art Education and clinical coordinator of the Graduate Art Therapy Program at Florida State University. He uses art therapy in prisons with aggressive offenders. When he was invited to evaluate this case, it was such a rare event that he decided to publish the details. The result is Art on Trial. It focuses specifically on capital murder cases.

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So, why did Gussak get called in? Engaging the services of such an expert was risky. Judges and juries may view clinicians with a bit of skepticism, as some trials devolve into expert vs. expert, leaving fact-finders confused about whom to believe. Now, throw in art. You see the risk.

This is what makes Art on Trial so intriguing. It’s a sort-of self-help book for novice expert witnesses, but it also paints the journey of an expert who faced unique challenges.

The reason for Gussak’s involvement is that the defendant had made numerous drawings and artistic images. The attorneys thought that a clinician versed in psychological themes in artwork might be able to see in his expressions evidence of a serious mental illness. In that case, his mental state at the time of the incident could be a mitigating factor in negotiating for his life.

But this gets tricky. Interpreting artwork is subjective, and most clinicians who work as expert witnesses wisely avoid basing their judgments about mental state on projective techniques.

To his credit, Gussak tackles this issue head-on. Among “projective assessments” are the Thematic Apperception Test, Draw-a-Person, and House-Tree-Person. Supposedly, themes emerge in stories told about ambiguous images or they emerge in a defendant’s drawings. Gussak describes these assessments and how they figure into art therapy. He also clarifies that this is but one level of a diagnostic evaluation, just one part of the puzzle.

Starting with a primer on art therapy, Gussak explains its relevance in forensic proceedings before getting more specific about the case itself. He clarifies that this work does not involve simply looking at a piece of art to understand the artist. Perhaps the art is a finished record of a subconscious process, but it can also be a catalyst for exploration and communication. There are several approaches, and the interpretive context is layered.

Getting to the case, Gussak changes the names of key parties, so “Kevin Ward” is the defendant. Ward ended up getting a plea deal, which removed the trial experience, but Gussak participated in a sentencing hearing, in the hope of getting leniency.

To show his process, Gussak includes examples of Ward’s artistic output, along with Ward’s own sense of his drawings. Gussak examined nearly 100 images as part of his overall impression, offering readers a detailed record of how he came to his conclusions. He includes 56 of these figures, as well as segments of interviews with Kevin Ward, which alone make this a valuable book for clinical forensics expert witnesses.

Gussak relied on several standardized instruments (which he fully explains), and also watched Ward’s behavior and speech. In addition, he asked Ward to talk about specific images from his collection. Gussak discovered that Ward’s “reasons behind some of the images were very different from my assumptions.”

Ward, Gussak noted, “had a tendency to develop fragmented, inconsistent compositions, with additional objects that seemed out of place.” (You, the reader, can see this for yourself.) Some were constrictive, others expansive. Objects were often deformed and haphazard. The “poor orientation to reality” that’s reflective of schizophrenia was evident in Ward’s art, and dramatically different levels of energy suggested a mood disorder.

Gussak’s opinion independently coincided with other mental health experts who performed different assessments, but the art therapy approach tended to humanize Ward for the judge.

Admitting that there is very little Grisham-like drama in a case in which only the length of the sentence is at stake, Gussak nevertheless sees the worth of telling his tale. He provides an overview of art therapy, a detailed evaluation of art pieces in this case, his experience with the depositions and testimony, and how his involvement affected the judge’s final opinion. (In retrospect, he also offers advice to attorneys who might wish to use an art therapist.)

This accessible first-person account works on several levels: for novice experts of any persuasion to learn the legal steps, for clinicians and attorneys to learn about art therapy as a diagnostic tool, and for art therapists to expand their applications. Art on Trial will also assist laypeople in appreciating this unique tool.   

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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