A serial rapist's attempt to claim insanity based on multiple personality disorder fell flat in Texas, as a judge ordered the expert's trial testimony stricken from the record as junk science.
Psychiatrist Colin Ross had testified that Billy Joe Harris, the so-called "Twilight Rapist" who targeted elderly women, suffered from multiple personality disorder -- now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID) -- brought on by childhood abuse.
Credit: Victoria Advocate, Todd Krainin / AP
Credit: Victoria Advocate, Todd Krainin / AP
Ross, who runs the Colin A. Ross Institute
that provides trainings on psychological trauma
and dissociative identity disorder, testified
that the condition's presence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric
Association establishes it as a "real and valid disorder."
Ross testified that he gave the defendant three tests for DID. However, in a most unusual procedure, rather than personally administering the tests, he gave them to the defense attorney to administer. Thus, he has no way of knowing for sure who filled in the tests, or under what circumstances.
Ross testified that the defendant's scores on a screening test, the Dissociative Experiences Scale, were so high that he questioned the test's validity. He also conceded that the defendant was "clearly telling stories that are not true" about other aspects of his life, for example falsely claiming to have served in Iraq when he was actually in Saudi Arabia. However, Ross testified that after getting a chance to talk personally with one of Harris's alters, "Bobby," he was convinced of Harris's claim of multiple personalities.
"I don't think he's faking the dissociative identity disorder," he testified. "I could be wrong."
The defendant, a former prison employee, also took the witness stand, "weaving tales of bestiality, aliens, transvestites and combat heroism," in the words of news reporter Sonny Long. Harris testified that he had three other personalities inside him, including a black Great Dane named David who committed the rapes.
A dramatic moment came during cross-examination, when prosecutor Bobby Bell asked to speak to the defendant's alter, also named Bobby. As Long described the scene:
Harris lowered his head momentarily, raised it back up, rolled his neck and declared in a deep voice to be "Bobby."
Was David the Dog the real culprit?
Several jurors stifled laughter
during the subsequent give-and-take between Harris and Bell, according to Long's account in the Victoria Advocate
But perhaps even more damaging to Harris's credibility was an audiotape played for the jury in which he talks to his girlfriend about having put on "a good show" in court one day. Earlier that day, he had fallen to the floor and twitched and shook until he was restrained. The girlfriend warned Harris that the telephone call was being recorded, to which Harris replied, "I know it."
Forensic psychologist Walter Quijano also testified for the defense. (This is the same psychologist who has been in the spotlight for using race as a risk factor in death penalty cases, as I recently blogged about.) He testified that when multiple personality popped up as an issue, he stepped back because he is not an expert in this area. However, he did testify that it is unusual for someone to begin a rape career so late in life. Harris is 54.
Mere presence in DSM doesn't establish validity
After the defense rested, the prosecution called as a rebuttal witness a Minnesota psychologist and attorney who has made a crusade out of pushing so-called "junk science" out of the courts.
Robert Christopher Barden testified that dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder) is a controversial condition looked upon with skepticism by the scientific mainstream. He cited several articles rejecting the condition as a viable diagnosis, despite its presence in the DSM.
"Because something is in the DSM doesn't mean it's reliable or should be allowed in a court of law," he testified, according to an article in the Victoria Advocate. "One of the ways to get junk science out of the legal system is you rely on the relevant scientific community. If something is controversial it means it's not generally acceptable."
Barden said the number of mental health professionals who tout dissociative identity disorder as viable are few and far between.
"There are a few pockets of people left who are doing this," he said. "The scientists I know condemn it to be the worst kind of junk science and dangerous to the public. Controversial and experimental theories should not be allowed to contaminate the legal system."
Concerning the tests given to Harris, Barden said, "There's no magic to these tests. It looks scientific. It looks professional, but when you get down into it, it's junk. It's unusual for a psychiatrist to interpret a psychological test and it's highly unethical for Mr. Cohen [the defense attorney] to give the tests."
After Barden's testimony that the condition is not generally accepted by the scientific community, despite the fact that it is listed in the DSM, District Judge Skipper Koetter ordered Dr. Ross's testimony on dissociative identity disorder stricken from the record.
In the end, the defendant's overdramatization and courtroom theatrics likely did him in. The jury took only 10 minutes to convict Harris, and another 10 minutes later in the month to sentence him to life in prison.
After the verdict, Barden said in a press release that the outcome demonstrates "the power of science-law teams in protecting the legal system from junk science testimony."
Barden has been involved in hundreds of lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and licensure actions across the United States over the past two decades, targeting therapists in the quack movements of repressed memory, rebirthing therapy, and multiple personality disorder.
Judge Koetter's ruling is not the last word, as it is just one trial judge's opinion. Appellate courts in other states have ruled differently. For example, in the 1999 case of State v. Greene (139 Wn. 2d 64), the Washington Supreme Court held that dissociative identity disorder was a generally accepted diagnosis because it was listed in the DSM-IV, and therefore met the Frye test for admissibility. But the Court went on to say that the applicability of this diagnosis to the issue of criminal responsibility was problematic and that testimony about DID was not "helpful" to the jury. (The Trowbridge Foundation has more information on this case HERE.)
The battle lines over dissociative identity disorder have heated up in the dozen years since that ruling, so who knows how an appellate court might rule today.
For those interested in learning more about the controversy, I recommend the chapter "Dissociative Identity Disorder: Multiple Personalities, Multiple Controversies" by Scott Ollienfeld and Steven Jay Lynn, in their book, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.