Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twisted Tale of Peter Braunstein

Proof of Intent

With a shorter haircut than on the day of his arrest, the defendant seemed to go in and out of consciousness, seldom looking at the witness stand and showing no evidence of the self-inflicted stab wounds to his neck — reportedly a dozen of them made during his apprehension in 2005. He grew more attentive when the jury learned from different merchants how Braunstein had accumulated the supplies he needed for the assault, beginning with eBay transactions dating back to January 2005. He used various screen names to buy chloroform, an FDNY coat and pants, a Detroit police badge, and a supply of potassium nitrate for his smoke bombs. There appeared to be a clear method to what he collected rather than engaging in a disorganized series of acquisitions out of which he happened to find what he needed. Indeed, he purchased a ski mask to conceal his identity and a gun and knife to possibly ensure his victim's compliance.  He also bought a pair of handcuffs and a gas mask (which he abandoned after the incident).

Potassium Nitrate
Potassium Nitrate

Gottlieb wanted the jury to believe that his client had slowly devolved from a man once capable of holding a job and having relationships into one who could no longer take the pressure because he had a problem in his brain. There was no evidence that he had raped or even attempted to rape the victim, so Gottlieb claimed it was not a sexually motivated assault. (Apparently groping the woman's breasts and genitals, or forcing her to wear nothing but sexy shoes, did not count as sexual.)

There was little doubt that Braunstein was the perpetrator. The alleged victim identified him, and his DNA and fingerprints were found in her apartment. A shaft of her hair, identified via DNA analysis, was on his ski mask.  Bizarrely, says the New York Post, when a videotape was played of a reenactment of the firebombs, "he appeared to surface from his professed psychoactive-medication-multiple-head fracture-paranoid-schizophrenia stupor." It was the only moment that seemed to engage him.

A week into the trial, Braunstein's former girlfriend, Jane Larkworthy, took the stand. She described their difficult relationship and Braunstein's self-destructive threats. At first, he'd been intelligent and funny, she said, but then he'd grown increasingly morose and angry, even violent. Once she asked him to move out, she continued to receive threatening phone calls and emails. He was charged with harassment.  Gottlieb thought this behavior was proof of Braunstein's escalating illness.

Jane Larkworthy and husband leave trial
Jane Larkworthy and husband leave trial

The most provocative evidence that surfaced was Braunstein's manifesto and the journal he wrote while on the run, confiscated from him upon his arrest. Justice Thomas Farber had to decide what parts the jury could hear. After consideration, he excluded Braunstein's entries about Hannibal Lecter, David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, Andrew Cunanan, and the 1999 Columbine massacre. However, he decided that Braunstein's stated desire to attack a certain fashion celebrity was relevant. It seems that the accused had pondered killing the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour (supposedly the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada), just "because I feel like it." When he'd worked as a fashion writer, he apparently resented that she'd never taken his calls. 

In the excerpts published in several news sources, Braunstein mentioned that God talks to him but denied he heard voices and said he knew what he was doing. Psychiatric experts who read these pieces failed to see evidence of psychosis; they thought Braunstein was insecure, aware, and angry. He thought too highly of himself and viewed himself as both a victim and a menace.

Although the defense team insisted that allowing the jury to hear Braunstein's remarks about killing the editor was prejudicial and might make them afraid of acquitting him, the judge held his ground. To support the claim of insanity, Gottlieb brought in both a psychologist and a psychiatrist.   

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