Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twisted Tale of Peter Braunstein

Proof of Illness

Dr. Barbara Kirwin
Dr. Barbara Kirwin

Dr. Barbara Kirwin, a clinical psychologist who interviewed Braunstein, said that she found him to be a textbook case of paranoid schizophrenia. He was also suicidal. She described how such a person can be functional in many contexts but still not be aware of the nature of some of his actions. She had learned from the defendant that upon his detention, he had banged his head against the bars of his cell, and to her he expressed his intent to kill himself. According to the New York Daily News and New York Times, Kirwin went on to say that Braunstein's attack had been symbolic: The victim was just a stand-in for the fashion industry. 

"He saw himself as a hit man for God," Kirwin stated. "He's an avenging angel, a special person who has been chosen to right hypocrisies." Anger and hurt over a romantic breakup had triggered his illness, and it had grown into a large-scale revenge fantasy, wherein Braunstein wanted to punish a corrupt arena of society — the fashion industry. Kirwin added that he was attacking firefighters as well, whom he considered hypocritical (a statement that angered the NYFD).

Dr. Kirwin described how Braunstein had told her that the incident with the victim had been merely a game. They were both "synthetic people" and he was surprised that she had reported it. He admitted that he knew it was a crime but did not think it was wrong (which makes one wonder how he defines 'crime'). The gist of this testimony was that Braunstein was unaware of the wrongfulness of his acts that night. No journalist discussed whether Kirwin had used a test for deception during her interviews.

ADA Rosenthal viewed all this as Braunstein's attempt to gain notoriety by committing a crime that would get him attention. He'd researched killers who had done so, including the man who had shot fashion mogul Gianni Versace, in order to form his own imitative plan. He might be disturbed, Rosenthal added, but that did not preclude planning or awareness of the criminal nature of his act.

Another expert, psychiatrist Monte S. Buchsbaum, had also hoped to prove that Braunstein was unable to make a clear-headed choice, but his approach failed to undermine the possibility of planning. He had subjected the defendant to a PET scan and used diagrams to demonstrate that his brain was defective in a way consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, the scan had occurred six months after the incident and the psychiatrist had to admit that a brain scan was not sufficient for diagnosing a mental illness. In fact, he had not looked at Braunstein's past psychiatric records or tested his ability to plan. Thus, while he could show the differences between Braunstein's brain and a normal brain, he was unable to prove anything about the defendant's mental state at the time of the offense.

The trial is expected to run another week or two, but the substance of the case has been presented: Braunstein purchased what he needed to commit the act, he did commit the act, and he seemed to have planned it as well as to have fled to avoid being caught.

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