Mr. Controversy: How Dietz finds the flaws

Former UVA professor Park Dietz

Park Dietz has been interviewed enough to say some truly memorable things. For instance, speaking of Jeffrey Dahmer, he once called cannibalism "the last frontier of being a bad boy." But the grim peculiarity of his business– not to mention his Sherlock Holmesian persona– often distracts from his real talents.

He can adroitly sort medical symptoms of mental disorder into archaic legal pigeonholes such as "insanity" in a world where everyone is gaming everything: his qualifications and truthfulness, the defendant's symptoms and conduct, the meaning of "insanity," the meaning of "is"– everything.

He has, though, another less obvious talent. That's the ability to identify– even identify with– the calculating, self-serving human behind the most monstrous– and to most of us, unthinkable– crimes, without the need to distance himself from the criminal by calling him crazy. Nothing human is alien to him.

Dietz's method might be called forensic deconstruction.

Lawyers like to cast a client's actions into a simple life story that the jury can relate to. It's not so easy when the familiar patterns are made paradoxical by mental disorder, but the lawyers naively forge ahead, trying to tell a coherent tale of incoherence, falsifying by oversimplification, and setting themselves up for Park Dietz.

Dietz takes the defense's story apart by showing a lack of internal consistency, or lack of consistency with the totality of facts in the case. This works a little more simply in a case where the defendant is faking it than in a case like Andrea Yates's, where she was not.

A defendant claims he's Jesus, but in the evaluation he disclaims the power to perform miracles. A defendant claims to have been acting in self-defense under the delusion that someone was trying to kill him, but the crime scene investigation reveals that fingerprints had been wiped from the murder weapon.

This second example illustrates Dietz's view that how the alleged crime was committed is often more informative than the defendant's explanation of why. Deconstruction is often enough for the prosecution. In some states– Virginia and Texas are examples– the prosecution gets the benefit of the doubt in insanity defenses. If the defendant's story doesn't add up, he loses.

 Dietz has his critics. The summer 2003 issue of the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy contains a scathing review by Deborah Denno of Dietz's performance on the witness stand in the Andrea Yates case. "The story that Park Dietz told," Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, writes, "did not fit many of the facts discernible from the transcript."

She believes that Dietz, like the prosecutor's closing argument, tried to insinuate that Yates was a frustrated, manipulative housewife. Other critics say he's too skeptical, or that he would better grasp the nuances of mental disorder if he treated patients.

He can't be expected to talk about sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo while the latter's trial is going on. And he still hasn't examined them. Obviously the jury that sentenced a guilty Muhammad to death believed they were spree killers, along the lines of Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, whose exploits are depicted in the 1973 movie Badlands (starring a youthful Sissy Spacek as the girlfriend).

As far as Muhammad is concerned, his refusal to be examined by Dietz barred his attempt to introduce evidence of Gulf War Syndrome, depriving him of his only chance, in retrospect, to avoid the death sentence.