Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Multiple Personality or Malingering?

Pamela Moss claimed her mental illness contributed to two murders years apart.

At 11:31 a.m. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, Georgia businessman Doug Coker went to meet Pamela Moss to retrieve the $85,000 he had given her to help him start a nonprofit foundation; he had decided it was a scam and wanted his money back. His wife, Judy, was, nervous about her husband meeting Ms. Moss alone. Doug was merely irritated by the months Ms. Moss had spent ducking and dodging him.

Two hours later, he was dead.

According to the prosecution, Pamela Moss lured Doug Coker to her house and beat him to death with a hammer because she had spent his money and didn’t want to go to jail. According to the defense, Ms. Moss wasn’t even there; instead, a different personality, “Caroline,” had killed Mr. Coker in self-defense.

Here’s what Caroline allegedly told clinical psychologist Anthony Levitas after the murder: “I was on the floor and there was a man standing over me. He had his hand on my arm and he was holding something like what appeared to be a curtain rod. I felt threatened; I was afraid for my life. So, I hit him. I don’t know with what. The next thing I remember was him lying there and there was a lot of blood.”

Not only did the defense psychologist believe it but Pamela Moss’ history backed it up. She had been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder in 1996, 16 years before Mr. Coker’s demise. She had received treatment for it for 6 years. The defense argued that Ms. Moss was not criminally responsible for Mr. Coker’s murder because Pamela, the host personality, was not there and Caroline’s mental illness caused delusions that led her to believe her life was at stake.

It was up to the jury to decide whether or not Ms. Moss had multiple personalities and, if so, whether they absolved her of any guilt. This was no small task; some mental health professionals aren’t sure if it even exists.

Multiple Perspectives on Dissociative Identity Disorder

Multiple perspectives have swirled around multiple personality disorder, now renamed dissociative identity disorder, ever since it first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III in the 1980s. Some clinicians think it’s a myth. Others believe it’s a mental illness. Still, others believe it’s a metaphor for genuine pain that has been shaped by a suggestive therapist or media.

When someone’s freedom is at stake, another possibility exists; faking. Dissociative identity disorder can be a tempting defense when the evidence pointing to a defendant’s guilt is overwhelming. Yes, the defense counsel can say, the body committed a crime but the mind that committed the crime is not the mind on trial; don’t punish Pam for what Caroline has done.

Assessing Criminal Responsibility Among Chaos

Criminal responsibility is at the heart of every guilty verdict and who did what is at the heart of dissociative identity disorder. Should a host person be punished for something she does not remember and, from her perspective, did not do? Is it possible for a person whose identity is so fragmented to truly act voluntarily and autonomously?

As previously discussed in another blog post, some jurors have said no. Since 1978, when 23-year-old Billy Milligan was found not guilty by reason of insanity of kidnapping, robbing, and raping three women after evidence surfaced supporting his claim of multiple personality disorder, courts have struggled to define criminal responsibility when DID is part of an insanity defense. Ms. Moss' defense argued that criminal responsibility should be determined by whether or not the alter in control, Caroline, was legally insane at the time of the offense.

Integrating the Facts

Today, many clinicians believe dissociative identity disorder is a genuine but rare illness that is a result of severe childhood trauma, overdiagnosed by a minority of dissociative identity specialists, and unlikely to first surface in the criminal arena. Courts have become increasingly skeptical; since the 1990s, few dissociative disorder defenses have been successful. Psychologists in the courtroom are less likely to solely rely on clinical observations and more likely to search for pre-existing evidence that supports them.

Pamela Moss is a case in point. It turns out she first received her multiple personality disorder diagnosis while on trial in 1996 for the murder of her mother. At that time, two psychologists hypnotized Pamela Moss and diagnosed her after witnessing the emergence of “alters.” No one verified her claims of abuse, asked loved ones if they had ever observed any personality shifts, or checked to see if her records contained prior evidence of dissociation. She was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter even though the facts suggested she deliberately overdosed her mother for a $500,000 insurance payout.

In 2012, that strategy failed. Detectives uncovered a mountain of evidence suggesting Pamela Moss—not Caroline—planned, executed and attempted to cover up a murder. Pam’s sister, who she talked to within minutes of the murder, said Moss had acted like “the same old Pam” she’d always known. A forensic psychologist testified that, if Pamela Moss had ever had dissociative identity disorder, no one had seen any evidence of it since she stopped treatment in 2003. She also argued that the defendant had given conflicting stories about her mental state at the time of the murder and that someone, including an alter, who killed in self-defense was not likely to hide the body under the porch afterward.

The verdict is still out on how often dissociative identity disorder appears in the therapist's office but, in the courtroom, most juries demand proof.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today