Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychiatry, the Law, and Depravity: Profile of Michael Welner, M.D. Chairman, The Forensic Panel

Where There's a Will

Often, the psychiatrist's work is anonymous, beyond the public eye, and his or her conclusions can even prove unhelpful to an attorney's case. On occasion, Dr. Welner might advise an attorney or prosecutor behind the scenes on strategies for showing the fact-finders different aspects of mental illness or deception, and if it's done effectively, it may mean they will not need him to testify.

Dr. Welner explained that behind-the-scenes assistance to an attorney to dismantle bogus expert testimony may mean less notoriety, and certainly cost the examiner billable work. "But it's the best ethical choice," he insisted. "The forensic psychiatrist should be concerned with helping the attorney present a truthful case as cogently as possible, rather than with his paycheck or his twenty minutes of fame. Don't worry about that. Everyone who matters knows. The attorneys and judges know your contribution and they don't forget." His advice has been borne out by referrals from 30 states, and as far away as Singapore. Word-of-mouth brings a number of unusual, complex cases for Dr. Welner's analysis, such as the curious case of Doris Duke.

Doris Duke
Doris Duke

Tobacco heiress Doris Duke, the only child of James Buchanan and Nanaline Duke, was once known as "the Richest Girl in the World." When she was twelve, her father died and left her one-third of his $300 million estate. With two failed marriages and a stillborn child, Duke surrounded herself with servants, maids, doctors, lawyers, and the odd assortment of leeches whose radars inevitably find money. She owned a five-acre home in Hawaii; a 2,700-acre farm in New Jersey; an oceanfront estate in Newport, Rhode Island; and her mansion, Falcon's Lair, in Beverly Hills. It was probably difficult for her to know whom to trust. She died in Beverly Hills in October 1993 at the age of 80, leaving an estate worth $1.3 billion, the bulk of which was intended for charity. On November 1, the will was unsealed and read. That's when things got interesting.

Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a pathologist who had devised a dietary regimen for Doris and her dogs, was among her transient friends.  He learned that in an earlier will, Ms. Duke had named him co-executor, but that shortly before her death, she had dropped him in favor of her butler and traveling companion, Bernard Lafferty (passed along to her by singer Peggy Lee). Demopoulos accused Lafferty of influencing Duke while she was mentally incompetent to make clear decisions. He hired an attorney to contest the will.

In the meantime, a former nurse, Tammy Payette, 28, alleged that one of Duke's physicians, Dr. Charles Kivowitz, had administered lethal amounts of morphine to Duke, in effect murdering her with an overdose. Kivowitz had been hired as her personal internist when she fell and broke her hip after having a facelift. The following year, 1993, she had a stroke, and Kivowitz asked her if she had her affairs in order. That's when she signed over total control of her estate to Lafferty, the butler. Then she had knee surgery and suffered another stroke and was cared for in her home. Kivowitz attended to her with morphine injections to ease her pain. Lafferty often joined him at her bedside. She declined over the next several weeks and on the morning of October 28, she died. Her body was quickly cremated, without an autopsy. At her request, Duke's ashes were taken to each of her residences to spend the night. At that time, no one whispered "murder," but Payette eventually made the accusation.

In his lawsuit, Demopoulos claimed that Lafferty was dangerous and unstable, and could not carry out Duke's wishes for her estate. He produced Payette's affidavit attesting that Lafferty and Kivowitz had conspired to murder Mrs. Duke through massive sedation. But there was a problem.

On March 31, 1994, Payette had been arrested in Beverly Hills on one count of grand theft for taking items belonging to the estate. Convicted, she had been sentenced to seven years in prison.

Demopoulos contacted Dr. Welner to look into assisting her attorneys in shortening her sentence. Demopoulous had hoped for some psychiatric reason why an otherwise unremarkable woman who had no criminal history would suddenly steal. Unbeknownst to Dr. Welner, Dr. Demopolous hoped that, were Payette to be vindicated through a diagnosis, she could better promote his efforts to gain a larger part of the estate. The intrigue deepened.

He went through the stacks of documents on the case — including information about Payette's accusations against the physician — and believed he saw evidence that Duke's death had indeed been accelerated. However, that was not what he had been hired to determine. His case was Tammy Payette, so he kept his focus on that report. His first instinct was to look for a history of impulsive actions, but he found nothing of the kind. He considered a lot of options but ended up ruling each one out.

What Dr. Welner finally concluded was that there was no psychiatric reason for Tammy Payette to steal from her former employer. No kleptomania, no depression, no hypomania. Instead, there was a motive based in her personality. Welner came to the conclusion that Payette was among that group of psychopaths who go about in the world undetected, using low-key manipulation and remaining under law enforcement's radar until one day opportunity knocks. She had suddenly found herself in a position in which she believed she could enrich herself, and without any qualms had acted on it.

"Placed in a certain situation," Welner said, "the switch got flicked."

In his testimony, he said that she had narcissistic personality disorder, "which is no prize." Given the onus of her mitigation, he could suggest only that being in prison, for a pathological narcissist, would teach her that she could not get away with theft unpunished, and that narcissists respond to limit-setting. The firm limits of serving prison time would deter her from stealing again.

Tammy Payette went back to prison. However, thanks to her accusations, the Los Angeles County DA's office stepped in to investigate allegations that Doris Duke had been murdered.

At the same time, a New York State surrogate's court appointed a special investigator, Richard Kuh, to look into some of the concerns regarding the will. In a 64-page report, his team concluded that Lafferty, Kivowitz and some of the lawyers were bilking the estate through excess fees. Kivowitz had been charging the heiress $50,000 per month for his services. The lawyers had billed the estate for $9 million in legal fees and Lafferty had embarked on a spending spree and was living high, buying expensive watches, cars, and clothing. He was also an alcoholic whose drinking was out of control. The court ordered the estate to cease making payments to those who were benefiting until it could make sense of all the lawsuits contesting the will. Lafferty was forced to give up his position as executor.

Yet in May 1995, he and the doctor were cleared of the suspicion of murder. The DA decided there was no evidence of criminal conduct. The bulk of the estate was destined for charity, a judge determined, but Lafferty received $5 million, plus half a million per year compensation. The Irish native did not have long to enjoy the wealth, however, because he was found dead the following year at the age of 49.

Welner came away with a new awareness. What he had seen of scheming leeches who converge and attach themselves to ailing wealthy people appalled him. "The lesson I took away," he says, "is that it's truly awful to get old in Beverly Hills."

Despite what he sees and hears, he knows that he must always keep perspective. In the following case, he was asked to assess someone whom the media had vilified, which meant pushing past the media's agenda to start from a fair stance.