Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Multiple Personalities: Crime and Defense

Friend or Fraud?

Kathy Bonney
Kathy Bonney
In Chesapeake, Virginia, there's a provocative epitaph for Kathy Bonney, who was 19 when she was murdered: "We take everything for granted, including our children They have no rights anymore." She had written the phrase herself once in a letter, never realizing how it anticipated her own death.

Deadly Whispers
Deadly Whispers
On November 22, 1987, Kathy was found dead in a canal. She had been shot 27 times. Her own father, Tom Bonney, was arrested and brought to trial. He offered a confession. However, the proceedings took a strange turn. The case is described in Deadly Whispers by Ted Schwartz and in an A&E documentary.

A psychologist named Paul Dell got involved with Bonney's defense team. He'd read newspaper reports about Bonney's apparent lapses of memorywhich included a vague amnesia about the murder--and he introduced himself as an expert on multiple personality syndrome. He suspected Bonney might be suffering from this and he wanted to evaluate the man.

Among the problems with this case is that Dell met Bonney with the idea already in his head that Bonney suffered from MPD, so he was biased toward how he would interpret Bonneys behavior. Another problem is that he based this on newspaper accounts, not on an actual assessment.

To that point, Dell had been studying the disorder for four years, viewing it as an automatic coping mechanism comparable to blood clotting as a way to keep from bleeding to death. This was during a time when therapists routinely looked for symptoms of the disorder and saw them in nearly everything from daydreaming to ambidexterity. Paul Dell, as presented in Schwartzs book, tended to see the signs in almost anything, apparently believing child abuse and other types of trauma inevitably gave rise to MPD.

Before contacting defense attorney John Halstead, Dell read literature on the disorder and attended the First and Second International Meetings for Multiple Personality and Dissociative States. One clue that led Dell to believe Bonney was a multiple was the fact Kathy Bonney had been shot 27 times, a level of violence that Dell believed could only be the result of a psychotic or dissociative person. (Oddly, he does not consider rage to be a factor, which criminologists would confirm is often present in cases of overkill.) Dell was also alert to Bonneys mental state when on news footage, Bonney sometimes hid his face from the press and other times demanded to speak to them. That implied to Dell that there was more than one personality.

In addition, Bonney had been quoted in a newspaper as saying about the gun, It was throwed in the canal and Dell believed this was evidence of a personality that had witnessed the event but not experienced it. Dell then contacted Halstead to discuss the case. The attorney, who had never heard of MPD, asked Dell to evaluate Bonney.

In initial interviews, Dell found Bonney to be difficult and uncooperative, even rather dull-witted. Face-to-face, Bonney offered no observable proof of the suspected disorder. Dell then resorted to hypnosis by having Bonney use finger responses to answer questions: one finger was to be raised for a yes and another for no. Yet this method still yielded no evidence of a multiple personality disorder.

Although hypnosis can easily be discredited in court, Dell was fairly naļve about the court system. Due to time constraints, he apparently felt he had no other option, so he applied some pressure. He kept up a monologue, aimed at the personalities inside Bonney that he believed were there. He then warned them that if they did not cooperate, Tom would be convicted and could die. In essence, Dell let Bonney know he could either show these personalities and be hospitalized or he could hide them and face the death penalty. (If he didnt have MPD before, that certainly gave him incentive to adopt it.)

Finally, Dell encountered what he was looking for:

  • Tom was an alter formed after a split that occurred when Bonney was a child and therefore he remained childlike, dependent and simpleminded; it was his job to run the body most of the time.
  • Satan was a protector personality that had formed around the time Bonneys grandmother died.
  • Mammy was literally Bonneys grandmother, an alter formed to cope with his grandmothers death.
  • Demian was an angry and violent personality, most likely created while he was being abused.
  • Viking and Tommy were similar alters that were friendly and kind.
  • Preacher used religion to ward off the violence that Bonneys father unleashed onto him.
  • Hitman had the job of standing up to Bonneys father and possibly to seek revenge on anyone causing Bonney pain.

Dells final report included three diagnoses: multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and mixed personality disorder. He explained these diagnoses in court and showed videotapes of his sessions with Tom.

Yet the prosecution quickly discredited what Dell had presented by pointing out the flaws in his evaluation: Dell had not witnessed Bonney taking many of the written tests used to form his diagnosis; he had formed an a priori opinion of Bonneys mental state prior to meeting him, admitting his bias; there were many significant discrepancies and inconsistencies in Dells report for the court; he clearly had been leading his subject with suggestion; and, finally, the use of hypnosis held no credibility in supporting Dells diagnosis. Outside a trance, no alters were observed. The prosecution also pointed out that Dell had often discussed the case and his theories with the press, which suggested an ulterior motive to his involvement. In addition, Dr. Phil Coons, a prominent psychiatrist who had been instrumental in writing the diagnosis of MPD for the APAs manual of mental disorders and an expert on it, further discredited Dells methods and diagnosis.

Dell defended himself by saying that because he was pressed for time, he had been forced to move more quickly than he would if he were assessing a patient in therapy. Yet his arguments were to no avail. By volunteering his services, Schwartz writes, he may have unknowingly created a situation where Tom Bonney was destined to be sentenced to death. In other words, his eagerness had presented a biashe was looking for the symptoms rather than diagnosing themand he had made some key mistakes.

In any event, the jury didn't buy it. They found Tom Bonney guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death, but this sentence was overturned in 1992 due to evidence from another psychiatrist that Bonney had been incompetent to even stand trial. Today the case remains in limbo, and Bonney has stated he never told anyone he had more than one personality.

Kathy's friends believe Bonney argued with his daughter over a sexually-explicit letter from a boyfriend, and then shot her in a jealous rage and dumped her body in the canal.

MPD/DID remains a controversial issue in court, but it has entered the legal arena in another way as well, in what most ridicule as a simple-minded and even outrageous judgment.

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