Psychiatry, the Law, and Depravity: Profile of Michael Welner, M.D. Chairman, The Forensic Panel
Byran Uyesugi, 40, was an apparently quiet, reclusive Honolulu man who on the morning of November 2, 1999, went on a rampage against his co-workers at an office building of the Xerox Corporation on the Nimitz Highway. He killed seven men at close range in a second-floor conference room with a nine-millimeter Glock semi-automatic pistol, including his supervisor. He also shot at an eighth person, who escaped injury. Then he calmly fled the scene in a company van. He ended up in a nature preserve, where someone spotted him and called the police.
Police officers surrounded him for five hours until Uyesugi's brother Dennis persuaded him to come out of the van. At 2:25 P.M., he was arrested. Eleven handguns, five rifles and two shotguns were confiscated from his home. He had permits for 17, but soon more weapons were found, bringing the total to 24. Twenty 9-mm casings were also recovered from the scene.
It was the worst mass murder in Hawaii's history. Uyesugi was ordered held on a $7 million bail at the Oahu Correctional Centre in Honolulu. He went to trial in 2000 and his defense team did not dispute that he was the gunman; rather, they argued that he had a delusional disorder and thus was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions. He had allegedly suffered from the delusion that one of his co-workers was an FBI agent and part of a conspiracy that had targeted him. The trial centered on his state of mind at the time of the shooting, relying on psychiatric experts for both sides.
For 15 years, Uyesugi had been employed at this company as a machine repairman. Neighbors described him as studious, private, and hard-working. Yet he had erupted in anger once before on the job. A former Xerox worker, Clyde Nitta, testified that Uyesugi had once threatened to annihilate his co-workers. He had gotten upset with these men in 1995 and had said, "I'll take care of them. I'll shoot all of them." Several people had been warned, including two of the men who had died in the shooting. Another worker recalled Uyesugi saying that if he ever got fired, he would get his gun and shoot as many people as he could. People knew he had a gun collection, so they had taken his threats seriously. A witness to the shooting had seen Uyesugi go into a shooter's stance.
Dr. Welner served as an expert for the prosecution, spending over two hundred hours researching the case, going to the crime scene, Uyesugi's home and neighborhood, talking to witnesses and learning what he could from the defendant's family and friends. He talked with Uyesugi for another 15 hours. Dr. Welner diagnosed the Japanese-American defendant as a schizophrenic — a diagnosis that Uyesugi was more seriously ill than the defense experts asserted — but concluded that his illness was not relevant to his decision to kill. For Uyesugi had shown a long-standing rational animosity against his co-workers and had acted in a way that exhibited clear reasoning and criminal intent. When Welner assessed the man, he found no hallucinations or disorganization in his thinking. "His actions," he testified, "had to do with his alienated relationship with his co-workers."
He was hostile to co-workers and he alienated customers. His work performance was sub-par. Uyesugi, faced with new technical responsibilities he felt he could not master, had anticipated his eventual firing. "Ultimately when he believed his shortcomings were catching up with him, he acted pre-emptively."
Welner testified from a 78-page report that he had prepared about numerous aspects of evidence that supported the claim that Uyesugi understood the nature of his actions and that at the time he had known right from wrong. He was hostile, vindictive, and delusional. But that did not give him an explanation of criminal insanity. "Uyesugi chose what he did on his own terms. He knew it was wrong; he just didn't care."
The insanity defense has a tough burden to meet. When actions show planning and awareness, it's difficult to prove mental confusion. "This person, in a very deliberate way," said Dr. Welner, "went to the place he worked and concealed himself behind a water fountain while they all filed into a conference room, which showed that he did not want others to see him because they would consider it wrong to be walking around the plant with a handgun. Once they were all inside, he came through the door and killed all six of them."
The jury, deliberating less than two hours, found Uyesugi guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
Most of the cases that a forensic psychiatrist takes on involve less extreme acts. Yet that does not make them less remarkable. Some can offer an unexpected education.