Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Multiple Personalities: Crime and Defense

A Case for the Insanity Defense

Dr. Dorothy Lewis and her colleague and collaborator, neurologist Jonathan Pincus, insisted they could show television viewers an authentic case of multiple personality disorder. They brought in convicted murderer David Wilson, who had agreed to let the cameras roll as he was being questioned. Lewis was convinced he would switch, and he did. At one point, he bowed his head, his lips trembled, his eyes closed, and when he opened his eyes, they were slightly crossed. His voice now had an aggressive tone as he questioned why Lewis was there. To her and Pincus, this was a credible demonstration of MPD, although reporter Diane Sawyers remained skeptical.

Wilson was in prison, facing the death penalty, because he had murdered a man who had pulled over to help him when he was stopped at the side of a road. Although Lewis insisted Wilson had nothing to gain by faking his disorder, in fact he did. Thanks to the efforts of Lewis and Pincus, his sentence was overturned to life in prison.

During the on-air interview, Wilson evinced three different personalities. The first was David, who seemed gentle and friendly. Then he complained of a headache, closed his eyes, and after several minutes, Lee appeared. Lee was angry and he confessed to the murder as self-defense against Davids abusive father. Then several minutes later, another alter, Juan, revealed he was the mastermind behind the murder, because it was his job to take care of David.

Since Wilson had suffered from abuse and told Lewis and Pincus that he had experienced blackouts, that admission seemed sufficient evidence to them to accept him as a genuine case. (They are not alone in this approach to MPD/DID.)

Lewis admitted on television she once had been skeptical of the diagnosis, but she was now convinced. In her book, she documents the case of accused murderer Marie Moore, age 36. At the time, Lewis was a novice about the disorder. There was (and is) no test that could prove it existed, but at times different personalities do express different psychological responses, which can be a good indicator.

Marie Moore expressed symptoms such as lapses in memory, blackouts, confusion, suicide attempts, and a reported experience of sadistic and childhood sexual abuse. Nevertheless, it was her neurological testing that proved she suffered from brain damage. Results of a CAT scan revealed a very striking pattern of frontal lobe atrophy with widening of the interhemispheric fissure and some lesser atrophy of the vermis of the cerebellum. The location of this damage involved an area thought to be responsible for judgment and primitive impulse control.

Dr. Lewis training had taught her that Maries symptoms were signs of schizophrenia or epileptic seizures. But then Billy appeared. Since Maries daughter had reported Marie would experience abrupt mood swings and at times would demand to be called Billy, Lewis was somewhat prepared. She found the phenomenon fascinating, so she continued to explore. In fact, Lewis writes, evidence of Maries multiple personality disorder could be traced to her childhood, when Marie had been blamed for deeds that she swore she had not done. Her playmates toys would be found in her room, yet she would insist she had not taken them. Such clear evidence can prove the interviewer did not plant or create the alternate personalities.

It was Billy who admitted Marie had been sexually abused by her father as a child; Marie herself had no recollection of this and only recalled being raped by a stranger when she was in her twenties. Billy appeared to Dr. Lewis as a protectoran alter that was created to endure unbearable situations. It was also Billy who claimed to have allied with Tony, a 14-year-old boy who was Maries roommate, to kidnap, torture and kill a teenage girl, Belinda Weeks, and stow her away in an attic. Marie had been unfairly arrested and held accountable for the horrendous acts Billy committed.

Dr. Lewis testified in court about Maries history of sexual abuse, mental illness and multiple personalities, only to be punctuated by Marie shouting that none of that testimony was true. Maries outburst, Lewis believed, should have been proof of her dissociation, but it had just the opposite effect. The jury did not accept the diagnosis and they convicted Marie of the murder of Belinda Weeks and sentenced her to death.

Lewis is not alone in her concern. Many psychiatrists and psychologists lobby for the recognition that extreme childhood abuse that causes mental illness should be a mitigating factor in criminal proceedings, and should be taken more seriously by juries. One author offers the legal options.

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