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The Brainwashing Defense

Lawyers for accused sniper Lee Boyd Malvo are using an insanity
defense that claims John Allen Muhammad indoctrinated Malvo
into a "cult of two" such that Malvo could not distinguish
right from wrong.

Lawyers for accused sniper Lee Boyd Malvo are using an insanity
defense that claims John Allen Muhammad, 42, indoctrinated Malvo, 18,
into a “cult of two,” such that Malvo could not distinguish
right from wrong. Malvo is on trial for the 2002 Washington
D.C., area sniper shootings. Psychologists and legal experts are skeptical
about the insanity-by-brainwashing defense, though some cult experts are
adamant that the youngster was, in fact, brainwashed.

Muhammad plucked 15-year-old Malvo from the Caribbean island of
Antigua, where his mother had abandoned him, and brought him to the U.S.
in 2001. An army veteran, Muhammad filled the teen’s head with
visions of an impending race war and trained Malvo in marksmanship. He
isolated Malvo, steeped him to his own idiosyncratic, vitriolic brand of
Islam and imposed a strict diet and exercise regimen on his
“adopted” son.

Steven Alan Hassan, director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center
in Somerville, Massachusetts, argues that not only can a “cult of
two” exist; it can spawn an extreme form of indoctrination.
“People wonder how Malvo could laugh when describing the crimes.
But in his ‘cult identity,’ it was all a game, and he
wasn’t talking as the sensitive, caring, Catholic boy that he
was,” explains Hassan. “In his cult identity, it was right
for him to kill people.”

In psychological parlance, brainwashing can be likened to a
dissociative disorder, in which one’s consciousness, sense of
identity or behavior is altered, according to Hassan. Malvo’s
lawyers argue that his true personality is in fact resurfacing now that
his bond with Muhammad has weakened.

But legal experts sound the alarm at the use of such terminology.
“Brainwashing is not a legal term, and is probably shorthand for a
‘lack of intention,’” says Richard Uviller, professor
of law emeritus at Columbia University. “The defense has to show
that at the time Malvo pulled the trigger, he did not intend to hurt the
victims. Insanity defenses in general are rarely asserted and almost
never prevail.” A similar indoctrination defense did not work for
kidnapped-heiress-turned-criminal Patty Hearst in her 1976 trial.

Cult expert Robert Jay Lifton strikes a cautious note about the
applicability of brainwashing to the sniper case. Lifton, author of “Superpower
Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World,” led
groundbreaking studies on the indoctrination of POWs in the 1960s. The general criteria
he proposed after studying thought reform—his preferred term for
brainwashing—is that an individual must be isolated, degraded,
forced to perform repetitive tasks and made to trounce earlier values.
These elements appear to characterize Malvo’s behavior in the wake
of the shootings, but Lifton is reluctant to comment specifically on that
case. “A strong person, particularly an older person, can have an
enormous influence on the shaping of mind and behavior of another
person,” he says. “But there is still the issue of
responsibility. One would have to be extremely cautious about labeling a
process between two people to be thought reform.”