Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twisted Tale of Peter Braunstein

He May Be Crazy, But He's Not Insane

Much has been made of the jury's decision to take the psychological testimony offered on both sides in Peter Braunstein's trial for sexual assault and decide for themselves whether he was aware of the criminality of his acts. The defense experts insisted his symptoms and "broken brain" are consistent with a textbook case of schizophrenia. However, they did not prove that his apparent mental defect prevented him from forming intent — an interpretation his attorney added.  For him, the entire defense hung on that single point.

The prosecution had an expert, too, who disagreed that Braunstein was so disengaged from reality that he was unable to appreciate what he was doing. On May 18, neuropsychologist William Barr, who'd met with the defendant four times, stated that the Halloween 2005 attack was the first step in an elaborate plan to eventually kill the Vogue editor, Anna Wintour. He was angry that this woman, along with the girlfriend who'd broken up with him, had repeatedly spurned him.

Via media accounts, he'd seen Andrew Cunanan do the same thing in 1997 when he killed former lovers and ended his spree with the death of designer Gianni Versace. Evidence of long-term planning on Braunstein's part seemed clear.

Andrew Cunanan
Andrew Cunanan

The accused might be a depressed narcissist with a substance abuse problem, said psychiatrist Li-Wen Lee, who observed him several times, but he did not have schizophrenia. There was no evidence of hallucinations or disorganized speech, she added, he certainly had a need for attention and admiration. In addition, he could have been malingering to get more drugs.

The fact that in four clinical settings, no one else had diagnosed schizophrenia, and that Braunstein had managed to maintain exacting and high-pressure jobs as well as get a degree, indicates that he was high-functioning. As such, he could and did plan.

In addition to the other items, according to CNN's coverage, jurors heard how Braunstein posed as a Hurricane Katrina victim, three months after the devastating weather incident, while he was wandering around in Tennessee. He apparently believed it would help him get free meals and shelter. But he also stated that he'd intended to go to New Orleans to lead a group of survivors in a protest, because he viewed them, like himself, as having an "end-of-the-world" philosophy. Dr. Barr believed this arose from grandiose notions about himself rather than from a psychotic delusion, although he apparently wanted to die.

Peter Braunstein
Peter Braunstein

It was the trial judge, Justice Thomas Farber, who outside the jury's hearing raised the issue that schizophrenia did not preclude the ability to plan and form criminal intent. Prosecutor Maxine Rosenthal picked up on this idea in her closing argument, while Robert Gottlieb continued to hammer home the notion that Braunstein had a broken brain, particularly in the area where planning occurs.

Apparently, the jury agreed with the judge and decided that Braunstein had indeed formed criminal intent. On Wednesday, May 23, 2007, after four hours of deliberations that included an analysis of the defendant's bizarre journals, they convicted Peter Braunstein of kidnapping, sex abuse, robbery and burglary, but acquitted him of second-degree arson. He faces 25 years to life. Sentencing will be decided later.

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