A Unique Shield for a Serial Killer

A surprising twist on “the other guy did it” defense.

Posted Mar 26, 2014

Donna Perry is suspected of killing three women in Spokane in 1990. DNA, ballistic evidence, and fingerprints link her to the murders of Yolanda Sapp, Kathleen Brisbois, and Nickie Lowe. All were shot and left near the Spokane River.

She didn’t do it, she insists. Although she is now 62, Perry states that at the time of those murders, “Donna” did not exist. That evidence is associated with Douglas Perry, her former male incarnation.

Over a decade ago, Perry got gender reassignment surgery. In her opinion, going from male to female made significant changes, including a diminished aggressive impulse. The person she is today, Perry says, should not be mistaken for the person who once inhabited her body. In fact, that body is no longer even that body. Being a female, she believes, means that she does not pose a future danger for violence.

"I don't know if Doug did or not,” she has stated about the evidence in the homicides. “It was 20 years ago."

Although not exactly the same thing, this reminds me of the Billy Milligan case. In 1977, he was accused of a series of robberies and rapes at Ohio State University. By the time he faced a trial, ten of his 23 (or 24) alter personalities had reportedly surfaced. One had a British accent and could write in fluent Arabic. One was a protector, another a lesbian. Ultimately, Milligan was committed for treatment and acquitted by reason of insanity.

For awhile, multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder), became a popular ploy among offenders. Infamous Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi is an example. (It didn't work for him, though.)

So in Spokane, the legal system might have to grapple with the tricky notion of identity. It goes back to the classic question about Jekyll and Hyde:

If Jekyll willingly drank a potion that he knew would give birth to Hyde and his atrocities, then Jekyll should be held accountable for whatever Hyde does. But if Hyde erupts in a way that Jekyll cannot predict or control, then Jekyll cannot be held responsible. Or punished.

With a defense of dissociative disorder, the legal system has had to sort through these notions:

1)    Each alter is a distinct person.

2)    Each alter is a distinct center of consciousness.

3)    Each alter is part of a single albeit fragmented person

With #1 and #2, punishment for a guilty alter would involve imprisoning (or executing) the “host” body, so this would entail punishing the innocent—the core person who did not do the deed, as well as any other innocent alters. With the third option, the person might be considered too fragmented to be fully aware of committing the crime (unless all the alters colluded together with the core person to do it).

A psychiatric report for Billy Milligan indicated that one offending alter was a 23-year-old Yugoslavian named Ragen. He had taken over Milligan's consciousness to rob some people. But before he could, a 19-year-old lesbian alter supposedly grabbed control and, seeking affection, had raped the women. The other personalities, including Billy, had no memory of this.

So, is Donna Perry’s claim to be innocent akin to Billy Milligan’s situation? She says she is now another person entirely. Yet, allegedly she’d told a cellmate that Douglas had murdered all three women (and others) because, even with the reassignment surgery, he’d realized s/he'd never have children and he’d resented women who could. Such a statement (if true) suggests that Donna acknowledges a personality continuum.

It won’t be difficult to find mental health experts who will dismiss Donna’s notions about becoming a “new” person. Her ideas are mired in outdated notions about both gender and aggression that have been debunked.

Still, it’s definitely a case to watch. Perhaps it won’t be legally complex at all, but it does raise some provocative questions for law, philosophy, and psychology courses.

More Posts