Did Casey Kill Caylee? : A Forensic Psychologist Comments on the Case

Did Casey Kill Caylee? : A Forensic Psychologist Comments

Posted Oct 26, 2008

How does a forensic psychologist view evil deeds such as parents murdering their own children? I have published two previous posts on parents who killed their kids. Now, in another high profile case, Casey Anthony is formally charged (but remains innocent until proven guilty) with having killed her own two-year-old daughter Caylee. Casey continues to claim her daughter was abducted by some fictitious babysitter. But police now believe her daughter, Caylee, is dead. No body has been found, but forensic evidence indicates the presence of human decomposition in the trunk of Casey's abandoned car, along with the strong presence of chloroform.

When it comes to alleged crimes like this, the public seems equally repulsed and fascinated. (See my updated posting about this case and the current trial here.) Such disturbing cases beg the psychological questions: If guilty, why would a young mother murder her only child? Is she evil? Mentally ill? Or both? Who commits filicide?

In the Andrea Yates case, chronic mental illness in the form of postpartum depression and psychosis seems to have been a factor. In others, personality disorders play a primary part. Could the defendant in this case be psychotic, like Andrea Yates? Bipolar? Borderline? Narcissistic? Or is Casey Anthony a stone-cold sociopath, as some pundits suggest? What is the relationship between sociopathy (Antisocial Personality Disorder) and pathological narcissism? I will address some of these matters from my own experience as a forensic psychologist, generalizing based on what we know about evaluating violent offenders who commit such evil deeds.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) shares certain commonalities with antisocial personality disorder (APD). Sociopaths or psychopaths tend to be narcissistic, and narcissists tend toward certain antisocial traits. Narcissists believe themselves--without sufficient merit--to be special or superior to others, harboring a grandiose sense of entitlement that they sometimes feel lifts them above the law, and gives them the right to disregard the rights and boundaries of others. They have a marked lack of empathy for the feelings and needs of others. It's all about them. Sociopaths share this distinct lack of empathy, along with a callous lack of remorse in general for having killed, raped, hurt, mistreated or stolen from others. Deceitfulness and pathological lying is typical in antisocial personality disorder, but is also commonly seen in narcissistic personality disorder, especially in the form of interpersonal manipulation. They can both be superficially attractive, charming and even charismatic characters. Antisocial personalities also exhibit impulsivity, failure to plan ahead, reckless disregard for safety of self or others, and persistent patterns of irresponsibility. By definition, however, APD requires significant evidence of such problematic behaviors (Conduct Disorder) at least since fifteen years of age. Background information on Casey Anthony in this case has not to my knowledge been made available to the media at this time, but would be critical in arriving at any accurate psychiatric diagnosis. Another basic commonality between APD and NPD, in my view, is an underlying rage: profound anger at parents, authority figures, society and life. In fact, I see both APD and NPD as types of anger disorders, unconsciously fueled by severe narcissistic injury and resulting narcissistic rage. (For further discussion, see my article on the psychology of violent offenders titled "Violence as Secular Evil.")

According to the massive media coverage, twenty-two year old Casey Anthony appears to have been carrying on an elaborate charade preceding her daughter's mysterious disappearance last June. It seems she told friends and family she continued to work at Universal Studios, when in fact she had lost her job there (if she ever had one) years ago. Casey apparently hadn't worked since. One of her numerous boyfriends allegedly describes her as a chronic liar. She reportedly regularly stole significant amounts of money prior to Caylee's disappearance from her parents, and later, from one of her female friends. It also appears she was reluctant to accept full responsibility for Caylee's care, relying for much of that on her mother, who had strongly supported her daughter's possibly unwanted pregnancy. It appears from some news stories that Casey stormed out of the house following an argument with her mother shortly before Caylee went missing. Coincidence? Perhaps. But could Casey's anger with her mother have somehow motivated murder? Anger, rage, jealousy, spite and revenge are some of the prime motivating impulses in murder cases. If a crime was committed in this case, as prosecutors contend, was it a crime of passion directed against Caylee? Or was it a cold-blooded, premeditated act of vengeance? Could Casey have become so enraged with her mother that she deliberately killed her own daughter to spite her? Was she jealous and resentful of her mother's close relationship with Caylee?

Convenience is another potential motivation. In the months prior to Caylee's alleged "abduction," Casey had allegedly desired to accompany friends on a vacation in Puerto Rico. But apparently, she was prevented from going because she could not find anyone with whom to leave her daughter. Was Casey resentful of Caylee? When she decided to leave her parents home with no money and no job, where could she go with a two-year-old in tow? Could this possibly be sufficient motivation to kill one's own child? Freedom? This seems to be exactly what happened in the infamous Susan Smith case. Smith, then twenty-three, drowned her two sons (both around Caylee's age) in her car, presumably so she could be with her new boyfriend. Prior to confessing, she blamed the murders on a phantom carjacker. Smith had been emotionally wounded during childhood, sexually abused, was suicidally depressed and may suffer from some sort of personality disorder. Extremely immature, narcissistically injured individuals can have great difficulty placing their own selfish needs second to those of their children.

Narcissism is a pathological form of selfish immaturity. Another report suggests that following the falling out with her mother, Casey Anthony called her boyfriend, asking if she could stay with him. He supposedly responded that she could, but not with little Caylee. So Casey may have tried, some now believe, to sedate Caylee with homemade chloroform, leaving her asleep in her car so she would be able to spend the night at her boyfriend's apartment. Indeed, searches for chloroform recipes prior to Caylee's mysterious disappearance have allegedly been found on Casey's computer. This tragic scenario suggests the possible unintentional death of her daughter due to a lethal combination of narcissism, naivete and stupidity, and a subsequent extensive cover up. Police apparently have testimony from witnesses who say Casey was spotted in a wooded area after borrowing a shovel from a neighbor days after Caylee went missing. And Casey is said to have taken two containers of gasoline from her parents home at around this same time, which could conceivably have been used to cremate Caylee's body.

Both Casey and her parents insist Caylee is out there somewhere, still alive. Caylee was not reported missing until more than a month after she disappeared. Are her parents, like Casey, in complete denial? Or are they consciously lying to protect their only daughter? No one knows. But the massive search for Caylee's body continues in the central Florida swamplands. Is Casey Anthony herself the hapless victim of her daughter's kidnapping, as she claims? Did she accidentally or negligently cause or contribute to her daughter's death? Or did she, as the State of Florida alleges, deliberately and maliciously murder her two-year-old little girl? If convicted of the capital murder charge, Casey could face the death penalty or life in prison.

From the perspective of forensic psychology and its possible role in such cases, will her attorneys request a psychological evaluation to specifically determine what her state of mind was at the time of the alleged crime? And what her current mental status and psychiatric diagnosis might be? (She has supposedly already undergone a psychiatric evaluation, but I am not sure what particular issues were addressed there.) Does she manifest any symptoms of mental disorder at all? Is there any psychiatric history? Is she competent to stand trial? Is she perhaps so out of touch with reality and dissociated from her own feelings that she has repressed any recollection of what truly happened to Caylee? Is she delusional? Was she in the throes of a manic or hypomanic episode? Or substance intoxication? Does she meet formal diagnostic criteria for a specific personality disorder? Will her lawyers eventually consider, if necessary, some psychiatric defense? Will little Caylee be found alive and the case dismissed? The unpredictable but predictably dramatic twists and turns of this tragic case remain to be seen, as public speculation runs wild.