Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fathers Who Kill

Mentally Ill or Malingering?

Paul Harrington
Paul Harrington

A program on Court TV's The System featured the case of a man who killed his entire family …twice. War hero, Vietnam veteran, and Detroit cop, Paul Harrington shot and killed his wife and two daughters, 6 and 9, in 1975. Under questioning, he admitted that he'd been haunted by a raid in Vietnam, where he'd killed a mother and her four children. The incident had disturbed him for years. His sister said that after he came home from that war, he was never the same. Working as a cop had kept the memory fresh. He had trouble keeping himself balanced and stable, so he turned to alcohol.

He'd been to a psychiatrist to discuss his fear that he might one day harm his family or himself. (Some psychiatrists might say this was a way to stage a premeditated murder, but others cite it as proof of seeking help.) The psychiatrist Harrington saw urged him to stay with his family over the holidays, but that turned out to have been a bad idea. He seemed to just snap and within moments, his entire family was dead.

Harrington was medicated and put on a watch in a psychiatric institution for 17 months before he went to trial. All the experts agreed that he had been insane at the time of the crime. He was committed to the state psychiatric hospital. He stayed there for less than two months and was then released --assessed as not being a danger to himself or others. That was the law. Thus, a year and a half after killing three people, Harrington was a free man. No one monitored him. He sued the psychiatrist for not hospitalizing him when he needed it, and reached a settlement. Thus, he not only killed his family but also appeared to profit from it.

Harrington got married again in 1982 and had two sons. By the 1990s, he had a substance abuse problem, submitted again to psychiatric care for anxiety and depression, and in 1999 repeated his atrocity. He'd had hallucinations, he said, of being told to go kill people. In debt, with no car, no job and no money to buy his psychiatric drugs, he swung into a dangerous state and killed his wife and one of his sons.

Wanda & Brian Harrington
Wanda & Brian Harrington

Again, he went on trial. Since he had borrowed his neighbor's gun the night before—which he used—the prosecution said it was clearly premeditated. Several psychiatrists testified once again that he had been insane—it was a flashback to the first incident. But Dr. Charles Clark for the prosecution tested Harrington and said he was malingering a mental illness. Clark did not accept the idea that Harrington was suffering from Vietnam flashbacks. Apparently, his opinion carried the most weight.

This time Harrington was found guilty and received a life sentence.

Even so, the families of the victims claim that the mental health system had failed them all. Had he been given the help he needed the first time, they believe, the string of tragedies could have been avoided.

Harrington's mental problems were well-documented, but sometimes a clever psychopath can convince a lot of people that he's mentally ill. Both men in the following two cases told countless lies, trying to make their crimes appear to be the result of forces beyond their control.

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