Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twisted Tale of Peter Braunstein

Preparations and Strategies

Peter Braunstien
Peter Braunstien

He described his arrest as an "Edward Scissorhands moment." In fact, Peter Braunstein, now enduring a trial 18 months after his October 31, 2005 assault on a woman in her Manhattan apartment, had exhibited a pattern of behavior that indicated he knew what he'd done was wrong. He'd dressed as a fireman to dupe her, planted smoke bombs, and forced his way into her home. Then he'd run away. It appeared he'd hoped to gain notoriety from it and upon his arrest had even welcomed the police and reporters. Despite the psychiatric witnesses testifying in his defense, it's important to remember that a diagnosed mental illness is not equivalent to legal insanity. The primary issue is whether Braunstein, 44, was aware that he'd broken the law.

Brain scan showing Braunstein's brain compared to normal brain
Brain scan showing Braunstein's brain
compared to normal brain

In response to a 13-count indictment in 2006, detailing charges that included sexual abuse, assault, arson, kidnapping, and robbery, Braunstein had pleaded not guilty. Robert Gottlieb, his attorney, insisted Braunstein had an unspecified mental defect and announced his intention to mount an insanity defense. According to Court TV News, Gottlieb had requested the videotape and photographs that had been removed from Braunstein's possession, but Assistant DA Maxine Rosenthal resisted giving them up. She explained that these items would not be used in the trial and intended to protect the privacy of the person the material featured. 

The trial began on April 30, 2007 as Rosenthal argued that Braunstein's behavior as early as ten months before the incident indicated that he was aware of the criminal nature of his act. So did his six-week flight afterward. Gottlieb protested that someone as ill as the defendant could not be held responsible for forming criminal intent. There was also an issue as to whether Braunstein's actions when he posed as a firefighter to dupe the victim into opening her door constituted kidnapping, since the legal definition required that he hold her for over 12 hours. Some sources say she was held for just 12 hours, others for 13. (This will probably be a non-issue in the end.)

In any event, when she testified, she described how Braunstein had used a gun and knife to force her to the floor and then placed a chloroform-soaked rag over her nose and mouth. She passed out for two hours and awoke to find herself tied up and naked, except for underwear and stiletto shoes, being groped by the ski-mask-wearing intruder. From his neck dangled a fireman's badge. She tried to keep him talking so he wouldn't become too aggressive. When he finally left, taking her Louis Vuitton bag and fur coat, she waited about half an hour, called a friend, and then dialed 911 to report the incident. Braunstein had left a note on her mirror that said, "Bye — Hope things turn around for U soon." When police took her to the hospital, the ligature marks on her wrist were bleeding and she had burn marks on her face and neck from the chloroform.

The following day, the jury heard the emotional 911 tape, proof of how terrified the alleged victim had been. During much of this testimony, Braunstein barely paid attention.

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