The Measure of Madness

Inside the criminal mind

The Tiana Browne Trial Part I

A 15-year-old is arrested for the murder of her cousin

It has been a long, slow summer in New York City and the sweltering weather has forced many of us inside. I spent a good part of the time in the courtroom of Justice Wayne Ozzi in the Brooklyn Supreme Court watching the second trial of Tiana Browne. Ms. Browne had been arrested for the September 30, 2008, killing her 16-year-old cousin Shannon Braithwaite. Although only 15-years-old at the time of the offense, she was being tried as an adult. She was charged with murder in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon.

Ms. Browne's first trial lasted two weeks. It was discovered, after the jury began deliberations, that the victim's mother had not been honest about a past felony conviction. Since she had testified for the prosecution and was considered a key witness, the presiding judge declared a mistrial.

There was never any question that Ms. Browne killed her cousin. The two were alone in the Ms. Braithwaite's Crown Heights' apartment. It was alleged that they were arguing and the defendant stabbed her cousin approximately thirty times. What was in question, however, was Ms. Browne's mental state at the time of the offense.

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Ms. Browne was using the not responsible defense. This type of affirmative defense is commonly referred to as the insanity defense. It would be her burden to prove that she lacked criminal responsibility for her conduct. In other words, she must prove that "at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, [she] lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either: 1) the nature and consequences of such conduct; or 2) that such conduct was wrong" (New York Penal Law).

I decided to follow this case, in part, because insanity or not responsible trials are rare. The general public inaccurately believes that this type of defense is widely used and is frequently successful. In actuality, this is not the case. The insanity defense is only raised in approximately 1% of cases, and successful in approximately 20% of these cases. I was particularly interested in watching the testimony of the psychiatric experts, both of whom have many years of forensic experience.

I spent so much time in the courtroom that I was able to get a sense of many of the people involved in the case. Most mornings I took a seat behind Ms. Browne's family. They often took up an entire row. Her grandmother, Jennifer Browne, was always there. The composition of the rest of the group changed each day but usually included her aunt, one or two young women, and several children. The presence of the children struck me as quite unusual. I could not recall any other trials I had watched or testified at in which so many children attended. I often noticed a middle aged woman sitting on the other side of the aisle, in the last row, behind the prosecutor. I wondered if she was a relative of the victim. I did not see her ever talking with any member of the defendant's family.

Both the prosecutor and defense counsel in Ms. Browne's case were seasoned trial attorneys. Ms. Browne's attorney, Douglas Rankin, was a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney. The prosecutor was assistant district attorney Mark Hale.

I watched Ms. Browne throughout the trial and was unable to get any sense of her personality. During the first trial she had been described by the press as, "stone faced." During this second trial, I noticed that she barely moved. She sat day after day with her head in her hands. I could not see much of her face and could not judge her expression. She rarely if ever spoke with her attorney and did not appear to make eye contact with the witnesses or jurors.  She seemed withdrawn, as if she desperately wished to be somewhere else.

I wondered whether Ms. Browne's appearance and behavior would make a bad impression on the jury. I compared her trial conduct with that of another young woman, Casey Anthony. I had watched much of that trial on television and noticed how often she cried. The jury concluded that she was not guilty of killing her daughter. Many wondered whether her sympathetic and attractive appearance swayed the jury.  

Ms. Browne's grandmother and aunt testified. They told the jury about how the defendant had been sexually assaulted on more than one occasion. Both described how Ms. Browne's personality and behavior radically changed after these assaults. She began to run away and had rage reactions during which she would throw things.

The grandmother told the jury how she had tried on several occasions to have her granddaughter admitted to a psychiatric hospital. She recalled how the psychiatric staff were not convinced that Ms. Browne was a danger to herself or others and therefore did not require hospitalization.  I found the grandmother and aunt's testimonies to be credible, though I kept in mind that they were family members who were likely motivated to help their daughter and niece.

I was most interested in hearing from the two psychiatric experts, Richard G. Dudley, Jr. MD for the defense and Alexander Bardey, MD. for the prosecution. Dr. Dudley testified first. He described how the defendant was exposed to significant family stress. She was raised by her grandmother, who she viewed as her mother, and a step-grandfather. During adolescence she learned that this man was, in fact, her biological father, who had impregnated her own biological mother when she was only 15-years-old. Dr. Dudley also described Ms. Browne's recollections of several sexual assaults.

During Dr. Dudley's direct testimony, Mr. Rankin posed many questions about how the defendant reacted to the sexual assaults. Dr. Dudley told the jury that, in his opinion, the assaults were so traumatic that Ms. Browne developed PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). As I listened to him describe the defendant's symptoms, I wondered how he would link PTSD with her actions at the time of the offense.

Dr. Dudley recounted details of what the defendant reported to him about her argument with her cousin. He reported that the defendant claimed that the victim had picked up and threatened her with a bat and she then went to the kitchen to get a knife. He testified that, in his opinion, she reacted to her cousin's behavior as if she were re-experiencing the sexual traumas. He believed that she killed her cousin during an episode of dissociation associated with PTSD. Dissociation is a disruption in the integration of an individual's personality or conscious functioning. It can be partial or complete and may or may not involve amnesia. Dr. Dudley concluded that Ms. Browne was not responsible for the offense.

Then it came time for the cross examination of Dr. Dudley. ADA Hale effectively brought out several key weaknesses in the defense's case. Through the questions he posed, he let the jury know that no bat had been discovered at the crime scene. The prosecutor also  raised some doubt about whether all of the alleged sexual assaults in fact occurred and whether the assaults were all, in fact, severely traumatic. He also emphasized the fact that PTSD is an "anxiety" disorder. Although he did not explicitly minimize the severity of the disorder, I got the impression that when the jury heard "anxiety disorder," they may conclude that the defendant was not mentally ill.

As I listened to Dr. Dudley's testimony, I began having serious doubts about whether Ms. Browne's defense would be successful. In the majority of insanity, or not responsible, cases I have worked on, the defendant had been mentally ill for years prior to their arrest. Most were paranoid schizophrenics with long history of psychiatric treatment and several psychiatric hospitalizations. The crimes they committed also tended to be bizarre. Sometimes they killed complete strangers for no apparent reason.  

I expected Dr. Bardey, the prosecution's expert, would have little difficulty pointing out additional weaknesses in the defense's argument.  

Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College.

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