Criminal Malingering: Defendants Who Fake Mental Illness

“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides.” –King Lear

Posted Feb 21, 2021

Accused criminals frequently feign mental illness as a ploy to hinder prosecution and evade or lessen punishment. In one study, 17.5 percent of the convicted criminals investigated by researchers were found to have feigned mental illness. The term for faking illness or injury to gain some benefit or to escape some obligation is malingering.

Below are two brazen cases of criminal malingering and the clever means by which these frauds were exposed.

The Hillside Stranglers

One of the most notorious cases of criminal malingering was attempted by Kenneth Bianchi, one of the hillside stranglers. Bianchi’s cousin, Angelo Buono was his accomplice. Together they raped, tortured, and killed 10 women. Bianchi killed two on his own. 

Following his apprehension in 1979, Bianchi pretended to have multiple personalities, a condition now called dissociative identity disorder. He managed to convince two clinical experts that his condition was genuine. Cynical cops didn’t buy Bianchi’s act and sought a third opinion. 

Psychologist Martin T. Orne set out to either expose Bianchi’s malingering or to confirm once and for all that his condition was genuine. Orne quickly saw evidence that pointed to faking. With the previous experts, Bianchi’s alternate personalities had revealed themselves under hypnosis (with Bianchi only pretending to be hypnotized). During those sessions he revealed one alternate personality, “Steve,” who was responsible for his crimes. But when Orne hypnotized Bianchi (with the killer again merely pretending), the psychologist mentioned that patients with multiple personalities rarely have only one alternate. Right on cue, another personality conveniently emerged. Multiple personalities are typically insulated from each other and do not switch back and forth upon suggestion. 

Now convinced that Bianchi was feigning mental illness, Orne next set about proving that Bianchi had been faking his hypnotic state. Orne arrived for one of his sessions with Bianchi and again attempted hypnosis. As usual, Bianchi seemingly cooperated and appeared to fall into a trance. With Bianchi’s eyes closed, Orne used his finger to trace an invisible circle on the back of killer’s hand. Inside the circle, Orne explained, Bianchi would be numb and feel nothing. Orne then said that he would touch Bianchi’s hand several times with his finger. Bianchi was to raise his other hand each time he felt Orne’s finger touch him.

Orne touched Bianchi’s hand several times, sometimes within the circle and sometimes outside it. When Orne touched inside the circle, Bianchi pretended not to feel it and did not raise his hand. Otherwise, he raised his hand each time Orne touched him outside the circle. A person truly under hypnosis would obey both commands—feel nothing within the circle and respond to each touch, without regard to the apparent contradiction. Orne had exposed Bianchi as a brazen malingerer.

These are the criteria that Orne applied in exposing Bianchi’s fabrication of multiple personalities:

  • Does each personality manifest consistency over time as to traits, characteristics, reactions, etc.?
  • Does the subject easily switch from one personality to another upon cues or prompts from the hypnotist (i.e., no apparent boundaries between the different identities)?
  • Does the subject manifest reactions under hypnosis that diverge from those of other hypnotized subjects (i.e., as in the touch test described above)?
  • Do people who have known the subject for months or years report any extreme personality changes or bizarre, out-of-character behavior?

Bianchi failed all four evaluation criteria. In addition to interviews with Bianchi and hypnosis, Orne used a battery of cognitive and projective tests, as it would be clinically reckless to rely on only one evaluative test or approach to assess malingering. Competent practice requires confirming and re-confirming via multiple appropriate tests (or “instruments” as they are called), so that the psychologist’s conclusion is sound.

The Collegno Amnesiac

In 1926, a man was arrested in Turin, Italy for attempting to steal an urn from a cemetery. He professed not to know who he was or anything about his history. Police took him to the Collegno asylum for evaluation. Once there he became irrational and combative, even attempting to plunge headlong down a flight of stairs. 

The mystery man was diagnosed as psychotic and admitted to the asylum for long-term treatment. He soon adapted himself to these surroundings and passed the time gardening and reading. Police meanwhile published his photograph in local papers to seek the public’s assistance in identifying him.

Many people offered tips, one of whom was a Mrs. Cannella. Upon seeing the man’s picture, she thought he might be her husband, professor Giulio Canella, who had served in World War I, went missing in action, and was presumed dead. Many members of the Canella family visited the mystery man at the asylum and came away persuaded that he was their missing relative. Long story short, Mrs. Canella took him home and had two children with him in addition to the two she had before her husband went missing. (But wait, there’s more.)

Meanwhile, an anonymous letter arrived at police headquarters claiming that the man was not in fact professor Giulio Cannella. He was actually one Mario Bruneri, a print shop employee wanted for fraud. Shortly a Mrs. Bruneri presented herself and claimed to be his wife. Litigation then ensued between Mrs. Bruneri and Mrs. Cannella to settle the matters of his identity and their matrimonial rights. 

The trial court and two appellate courts consistently ruled that the man was Mario Bruneri. Nevertheless, he continued living with Mrs. Cannella and eventually moved with her to Brazil, where her family had substantial investments. He worked the rest of his life as a music and literary critic.

A physician, Carlo Ferrio, found that the purported amnesiac was malingering. This was his ruse to avoid prosecution for the cemetery theft as well as the previous fraud charge. Dr. Ferrio did not have the forensic tests and expertise available to us today, but he was able to use routine memory and cognitive ability tests to expose his patient as a fake.

The problem criminal malingerers face is that in “faking bad,” they don’t know how far to take the act. Consequently they typically overplay their hand. If by luck they score within the range that is typical for mentally impaired individuals on one test, then they will score well outside this range on other tests. That’s what tripped up Dr. Ferrio’s mystery patient: He tested so badly on memory skills and cognitive abilities that even profoundly impaired individuals would have achieved superior scores. These highly improbable scores did not align with observations that he was able to read, work in the garden, and interact normally with staff and other patients.

Today the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, the Test of Memory Malingering, the Rey Fifteen Item Memory Test, and the Miller Forensic Assessment of Symptoms Test are a few of the instruments available for detecting malingering in clinical or forensic settings.

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to accept what is true.” –Soren Kierkegaard