Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Multiple Personalities: Crime and Defense

The Easy Way Out

Primal Fear videocover
Primal Fear videocover
A fictional account of a similar situation is seen in Primal Fear, a movie based on a novel by William Diehl and starring Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a defense attorney who takes the case of an altar boy suspected of murdering an archbishop. Psychologist Molly Arrington believes this client has multiple personality disorder. To her, it's a textbook case. Why? Because the guy seems to suffer headaches and then goes through a shocking personality change: The shy, stuttering Aaron becomes the aggressive, foul-mouthed "Roy." We soon learn Arrington has no experience. She's an academic who has read about this condition in books, so she was easily deceived. Aaron, it turns out, had been performing all along.

Detecting when a defendant is lying is a source of endless research and debate. Technological lie detectors like a polygraph have their defenders and detractors. Often, they're not used at all, which means mental health practitioners must rely on other means, such as noting when words or behavior seem false. Not only can they be deceived, they may actually play right into the hands of maligneror even assist him.

Sean Richard Sellers
Sean Richard Sellers
The high school class in which Sean Richard Sellers was a member in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma voted him as the person most likely to become a vampire, probably because he brought vials of blood to school and drank them in front of other students. He also carried the Satanic Bible quite visibly, to frighten people and demonstrate his power. His story is told in his confession, posted on his Web site, in trial records, in a flurry of media articles, and in an interview he did for 48 Hours. Since he was 16 at the time, he was quite a sensation.

Sean indicated that for over two years he had spent hours performing private rituals in his bedroom, using his own blood to write notes to Satan. Demons were the beings that would do things I wanted done, he wrote in his confession. They were the keys to the power Satanism promised. He started drinking and popping pills, and soon found like-minded friends. According to him, they met to drink each other's blood.

Eventually Sean decided that to prove he could exercise the ultimate power over someone, he would have to murder. He said he summoned a powerful alter ego to give himself courage and on September 8, 1985, he entered a convenience store and used a borrowed gun to shoot the clerk, Robert Bower. He and a friend, Richard Howard, had decided that because this man had refused to sell them some beer, he was no longer of use in the world. That was part of their satanic ideasthat they could decide such things. Sellers claims Howard chose Bower, but that he, Sellers, actually did the shooting. Then together they disposed of the weapon.

In his confession, Sellers says when his courage nearly failed him, he reverted to a cold, determined, heartless and evil personality. In other words, he was able to find an identity via his rituals and beliefs that licensed and gave him momentum to do the act. He and Howard laughed about it afterward. We giggled like it was a fantastic prank. Sellers talks about how it changed him and emboldened him to do it again. When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior.

Not long afterward, Sellers dressed in a ritualistic manner in black underwear and shot his mother Vonda and stepfather Paul Bellofatto in the head as they slept. Hed been fighting with them over a girlfriend, he later reported, and had decided the way to free himself from their control was to kill them. He tried to make it look as if someone had entered the home and killed the couple, but he did not do a very good job. The police notes indicate it was clear from the crime scene a family member had done the deed. Upon questioning Sellers, they thought he put on an act with faked attempts at sorrow. He was smart, they could see, and manipulative but not very sophisticated. They soon learned from Sellers accomplice about the incident at the convenience store.

After he was arrested and charged with the murders, he said dreams about blood had influenced him. He also blamed his addiction to a role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.

A jury convicted him and gave him the death penalty. As he waited on Death Row, he made himself available to the press. Having now become a born-again Christian, and becoming aware he was the poster boy for groups fighting against the death penalty for juvenile crimes, he argued for his release back into society. He became acquainted with the fact that he would be the first person since the death penalty had been reinstated in 1976 to be executed for crimes committed when he was 16something most nations around the world condemned. There were 16 other offenders nationwide in his circumstance.

He claimed he now helped kids who were into the occult and that having learned from his crimes and matured quite a bit, he would be a different person than he had been at age 16.

Dorothy O. Lewis, a psychiatrist, diagnosed Sellers with schizophrenia in 1987, but later revised her opinion. By 1992, she had decided he had multiple personality disorder. She and a neurologist went before three judges on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to say that a diagnosis of MPD was unknown at the time of Sellers sentencing and that it had taken over six years to establish his diagnosis of three alter personalities. They claimed he was mentally ill, and thus factually innocent of the murders, and therefore should not be executed. However, the federal court did not overturn the states judgment, stating the issue was raised too late to make an appeal.

By 1999, when Sellers execution was imminent, his attorneys took these findings before the Board of Pardons and Appeals to make a statement on Sellers behalf.

MPD expert Dr. Markus Barker told the Daily Oklahoman in 1999 that such a diagnosis should have been obvious much earliereven before he went to prison. Dr. Barer believed that if Sellers did indeed suffer from something like that, he would have sought medical or psychiatric attention right away. To have such a condition emerge at trial makes it suspect. To have it undetected even then and not obvious for another six years, thats even more questionable.

Apparently the clemency board agreed, because they did not stay the execution. Perhaps that was because they received a letter, written by Fred Cook, a unit manager for the building in which Death Row is located at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. As reported by the local newspaper, Cook claimed he saw what he believed was Sellers being coached by a female investigator for his defense attorney in how to act as if he had a mental disorder.

Through a window he saw Sellers acting out behaviors hed never done during his years in prison, such as jerking his head back and forth, rolling his eyes back, falling out of his chair, rolling on the floor, and babbling. When Cook knocked on the window, Sellers quit. From a different view, Cook said he could see the woman holding up cards on which were printed words such as roll your eyes and stammer. Cook watched Sellers do whatever the card instructed. He quickly added his observations to the stack of documents that went to the clemency board.

Lethal injection table
Lethal injection table
In 1999, 14 years after his crimes, Sean Sellers was executed.

Whether they get coached or learn on their own from movies or books, prisoners with something to gain have no difficulty picking up the expected mannerisms for an MPD diagnosis. That means mental health practitioners need better corroboration than a prisoners demonstrative behaviors or self report of memory loss or blackouts.

Detecting a maligner is no easy matter.

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