Park Dietz: The killing expert who knows too much

Published December 4, 2003, in issue #0248 of The Hook

Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber, and would-be Presidential assassin John Hinckley all had one thing in common. They were evaluated by Park Dietz.

A former UVA professor, Dietz is one of America's top forensic psychiatrists. But now he finds himself sitting out one of the hottest criminal case of the new century– the "sniper trials." [See sidebar for why.–ed]

Dietz is a prosecutor's dream because his method of forensic evaluation looks for a flaw in the internal logic of the defendant's purported madness, and in that way "proving" that the defendant is sane at least legally.

For example, Andrea Yates was so concerned about Satan's influence on her children that she killed them. But believing in Satan implies believing that there's a difference between good and evil. Therefore, she was legally sane because she could distinguish right from wrong.

Dietz was the original psychiatric profiler for the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI. In the 1980s, he taught in Charlottesville at the law and medical schools just after he was catapulted into national recognition as the prosecution expert in the Hinckley trial.

He took some former FBI profilers and former UVA faculty members to Newport Beach, California, where he has started his own consulting agency– which includes analyzing celebrity fan mail to assess the risk of stalking.

Dietz is, without doubt, an odd, larger-than-life character with a Charlottesville connection, who thanks to a questionable ruling by a judge– now finds himself in the unusual position of sitting out the sniper trials. Because there's still a chance he could be called to consult, he must tiptoe around certain subjects. But in the midst of the sniper trials, Dietz talks to The Hook about high-profile killers, workplace violence, and Andrea Yates.



Q: What led you to become a forensic psychiatrist?

A: One of the experiences in my younger years, which may have influenced this career path, was that I had dealings with a fellow whom I would now regard as a psychopath, or at least the juvenile equivalent. He was the first person I knew to have been expelled from schools repeatedly, the first person to provide hard-core pornography to other teenagers, the first person to sell switchblade knives, and the first person whose rape of a woman I knew caused me to know something of the pain of sexual assault victims. I'm not sure what's become of this fellow, but I think he probably sparked my interest in psychopaths.

Q: What age?

A: I was probably 12 when I first met him, and he must have been something more like 16 or 17.

Q: What was it that intrigued you about him?

A: I think it was both the charm and the allure of the dangerous and the taboo. And, he's somebody I regarded as a friend.

Q: Was that charisma unconscious on his part?

A: I've always thought that this is something of a natural skill that can be used for good or evil. When people have a sufficient degree of charisma, they discover fairly early that they have the ability to influence other people. I've come to regard charm and charisma as warning signs.

Q. So charm can be dangerous?

A: Women should be particularly cautious– there's a lot of sex appeal in charm. The problem is that it comes with a lot of things that women aren't looking for, like violence and deception.



Q: Do you better understand Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley because of your interaction with that young psychopath?

A. If you were to look across a broad range of people who've done terrible things, the two things that you'd find most prevalent would be this trait of psychopathy and the trait of narcissism. These are personality attributes that allow one to either function without conscience, with minimal concern for one' impact on others. It's very hard to do destructive things to other people if one has a conscience– or a high degree of empathy.

Serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

At the 1992 trial of the man who kept the heads of some of his victims in his freezer, Dietz was quoted as saying, "There was no force pushing him to kill. There was merely a desire to spend more time with the victim." The jury sentenced Dahmer to 15 consecutive life terms, and he was slain in prison two years later.

Q: Many of these people did things which were not only highly destructive but also made a big splash. They were not indifferent to what was thought about them, as a psychopath might be, but, perhaps, like a narcissist, wanted to say to the world, "Hey, look at me."

A: I think that's a primary factor for Hinckley. I think it's a primary factor in the Columbine shootings. I don't think it played any role in Dahmer's crimes. I don't think it plays much role in the average murder.

Q: Is there a sense that any of those people, even Dahmer, took pleasure in inducing terror in their victims, or even in the public at large?

A: Certainly, all sexual sadists thrive on the creation of terror for their victims. That's the primary motive. While it's very common for adolescents to include some minor sadistic elements in their sexuality, like giving a hickey, most adults don't find the infliction of pain or trauma on a victim erotically arousing. Likewise, while most adolescent boys enjoy scaring girls– or the kinds of provocative pranks that would cause someone to shriek– most adults no longer find it entertaining. But some do. Some people have a lifelong desire to terrorize others, to cause fear, to intimidate them, and they do it for a variety of reasons. Probably the most common reason is that they learn that this is a way to influence people and have a degree of power, by intimidating them.



Q: As a forensic psychiatrist, hired by the prosecution, don't you often encounter some kind of rationalization on the part of the defendant of why they did something?

A: Sometimes defendants are very straightforward in saying why. Sometimes they're lying. Sometimes they say they don't know why, and that may be true or false, just like the reasons they give. I think that one can learn more about the truth by looking at how the crime was committed than by asking people why.

Q: Or comparing their explanations of why they did it with your determination of how the crime was committed?

A: Yes, that's actually my method. If their explanation of why they did matches how they did it, I'm more inclined to believe them.

Malvo and Muhammad
Dietz has to sit this one out. Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, seated far left, watches as fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, is identified in court at Muhammad's trial in Virginia Beach in October.

Q: What if they're delusional, and conflicted, and psychotic? Would you expect their account to be internally consistent or consistent with the external evidence?

A: I do expect the account of someone who's psychotic to match what they did. That is, I expect them to behave as though the delusions are true.

Q: Are spree killers or thrill killers doing the same thing as hunters during hunting season, a form of pastime or recreation? Or is it an upheaval in an otherwise normal life?

A: I don't think it's either for spree killers. I think these are fundamentally flawed people who commit a spree when they feel they have little to lose and get themselves armed. A fellow like Charlie Starkweather [the inspiration for the 1973 film Badlands] was not a normal person before he went on a spree.

John Hinckley Jr.
Twenty years ago, Dietz was unable to stop a jury from finding Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan and James Brady, not guilty by reason of insanity. Shown here late last month at U.S. District Court in Washington, psychiatric hospital patient Hinckley is arguing that his improving mental state should make him eligible for unsupervised visits with his parents.

Q: What prompted his spree?

A: He didn't feel that he had much to lose. If he had had good prospects for education, a career, and a girlfriend, he wouldn't have gone on the spree.

Q: Even if he has nothing to lose, what does he have to gain?

A: When somebody has so little to lose, so that it all seems meaningless to them, then they're likely to consider revenge as having considerable value. They may think of suicide as an escape from it all. That's a terrible combination, being suicidal and wanting revenge. That's at the heart of most of the workplace and school mass murders of the last 20 years.



Q: Is there universal lethality in people?

A: I think so, although this is one of the views for which I've been criticized. I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It's the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.

Theodore Kaczynski.

The so-called "Unabomber" terrorized high-tech professors with a series of mail bombs from 1978 to 1995. After being examined by experts including Dietz, Kaczynski pled guilty on the eve of his 1998 trial and was sentenced to four life terms for killing three men and injuring two others.

Q: Do you see the prosecution of offenders as deterrence to others not to act on their lethal instincts?

A: There surely is a morality play function to criminal trials. Some cases are prosecuted more for that reason than any other. The place where this is highlighted particularly well is in the prosecution of women charged with infanticide, that is, with killing their own children.


Andrea Yates

Last year, after testimony from Dietz, a Texas jury found her guilty but spared her from execution for drowning her five young children in the family bathtub in 2001.


Q: Which of the cases you've had has been the most challenging for you professionally?

A: Undoubtedly Andrea Yates.

Q: What made it challenging– the severity of her mental illness or the severity of the act itself?

A: Neither– what made it challenging for me is that I wished she were insane, but she wasn't, not within the law of Texas. And yet, the reason I wished she were insane is that this was a very good woman before she became ill who was a very sick woman after she became ill. It's a rare combination, of the people that I see, to have someone of good character who is profoundly sick.

Q: But was she sick in the sense that she was unable to distinguish right from wrong?

A: She, despite having nearly incapacitating symptoms of mental illness, nonetheless knew that her actions in killing the children were to be condemned by God and by society, and that they were illegal.

Q: She also thought they were necessary?

A: As she described it to me, the necessity was that if she didn't kill them, Satan might influence them in such a way that one day they would grow up to be criminals or wards of the state or not good people.

Q: So she felt morally compelled?

A: I don't know about "morally compelled," but she believed that their best chance of heaven was to die now, before they were corrupted.

Q: Are you saying that view and the view that it was wrong were inconsistent? Isn't she demonstrating the inconsistency of her delusion?

A: I think it would be fair to say there's an inconsistency between her view that this is morally to the benefit of the children– while legally a crime and something that God would not want. That's an inconsistency. Whether it reflects delusion is another issue. The symptoms of mental illness that she had prior to her arrest largely weren't documented, but I believed her when she told me that prior to her arrest she believed that cartoons and ads were talking to her from TV, and that there were cameras in her house watching her. Those delusions were known only to Andrea and Rusty Yates. They were never revealed to any of the people treating her. Even so, those beliefs don't tie into the decision to kill the children.

Q: How is it that she formed the belief that the children needed to be killed?

A: I don't think she had the belief they needed to be killed. She had the belief that she could feel the presence of Satan, that he was nearby, that he was influencing her, and that Satan wanted her to commit the last of the Seven Deadly Sins, which she mistakenly thought was homicide. It's not among the Deadly Sins, actually.

Q: Okay, so her aim was to do something good, but she was acting under the influence of Satan, and thus indirectly acknowledging that what she was doing was wrong.

A: She also directly acknowledged it by saying, "I knew it was illegal, I knew that God would disapprove, I knew society would disapprove, I knew my husband would disapprove." Let me tell you something that you may not be aware of. In my report, I point out those things consistent with her knowing it was wrong, and those things consistent with her not knowing it was wrong. Likewise, I did so in my testimony and refused to answer the ultimate question [of whether she was "legally insane" under Texas law].

Q: There was a mixed and inconsistent belief system here, regarding that.

A: Yes, and we've seen this in the case of other mentally ill women who've killed their children. I think these are the most difficult cases for that reason.

Q: Did you think that because of the inconsistencies there was malingering involved in this case?

A: Not at all.

Q: So it was a case of line-drawing. That's something that the legal community does, rather than the psychiatric community.

A: That's what I think, though I've certainly taken an abundance of criticism for not having told the lie that everyone wanted to hear.

Q: Which was what?

A: Everyone would like for her to have been found insane– or at least the psychiatric community would have. I think the public was split on it.

Q: What solace does the public take in attributing bad actions to mental illness, as opposed to the exercise of free will? Why is it more comforting to people to think that a mother would do this only if she were mentally ill, than to think that a mother might be able to do it at any point but chooses most of the time not to?

A: That's the heart of the matter. That's all about wanting to distance oneself from the unacceptable impulses that every mother has felt from time to time.

Park Dietz




Park Dietz returned to Charlottesville in September to deliver a lecture, sponsored by the UVA Institute of Law, Psychiatry & Public Policy, at the Omni to an audience of forensic evaluators from across Virginia.


Dietz was one of the few who knew too much. You didn't see Dietz on TV last year. Maybe you've never heard of him. Because of maneuvering by the sniper suspects, you may not hear him testify any time soon.


Although he failed in his effort on the part of the prosecution to stop a "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict in the trial of John Hinckley Jr., the shooting of President Ronald Reagan showcased Dietz nationally for the first time.