Psychiatrist: Synagogue shooter’s problems stem from maladaptation to childhood, not mental illness
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz has evaluated the man who tried to assassinate former President Ronald Ronald Reagan, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the Boston Marathon bomber, among many others.
On Thursday, Dietz — who earned joint M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University after studying for two years at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine — testified at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh. He concluded that Robert Bowers didn’t have a mental illness stemming from a biological problem with his brain.
Bowers was convicted last month of killing 11 Jewish worshipers and wounding six other people in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. During this second phase of his trial in U.S. District Court, jurors must decide whether or not they should be allowed to consider imposing the death penalty on Bowers. The key issue in dispute during this phase is whether Bowers had the ability to form an intent to kill, as defined by the law, at the time of the synagogue shooting.
Defense experts argued during the past two weeks that Bowers had brain abnormalities and suffered from schizophrenia and delusions. They testified that his psychological problems left him unable to form the intent required for a jury to consider the death penalty for him.
Dietz, the prosecution’s lead psychiatric expert, came to a different conclusion after interviewing Bowers over four days in May.
During around 15 hours of interviews, Bowers was remarkably normal in most respects, Dietz testified. And he didn’t suffer from delusions, as the defense argued. He had the capacity to plan, premeditate and intentionally kill, Dietz said.
Bowers holds very strongly held anti-semitic beliefs — not delusions — which he learned through his time spent socializing and researching white supremacy on the internet, Dietz said. During his testimony, Dietz meticulously connected statements Bowers made during his examination with common white supremacist beliefs that Bowers had encountered on social media and in racist videos.
"I was able to determine that not a single belief I was able to identify originated with him,” Dietz said. “They were all ideas that have currency in a subculture that he was actively involved with online."
Dietz said it’s important to avoid incorrectly diagnosing a person’s political or religious beliefs as “delusions” from an outsider's perspective. For example, he said, Christian belief in the miracle birth of Christ or even beliefs in UFOs or sasquatches may seem strange to an outsider, but they aren’t delusions.
“The defendant's extreme beliefs all originate from the Bible, antisemitic tropes, propaganda, hate speech, white supremacist and white separatist rhetoric, his observations of the world and self-selected exposure to materials on the internet that support these beliefs; they do not spring from mental disease,” Dietz wrote on a slide presented to the jury Thursday to present his findings.
When Dietz asked Bowers why he thought Jews were helping immigrants “invade” the country, Bowers told him directly: "This is not paranoid delusion, this is really happening.” Bowers then pointed to an effort in New York to allow illegal aliens to vote in local elections.
Dietz also contradicted some testimony from defense experts. For example, one defense witness said that Bowers’ focus on passcodes and license plate numbers was “subtly delusional” because of the intense importance he placed on those numbers. But Dietz said he was able to confirm that the numbers Bowers cited were accurate, including very specific knowledge about guns and ammunition.
“Rather than call it ‘subtly delusional,’ I would call it a superb memory for numbers,” he said.
In addition to the lack of delusions, the fact that Bowers has not been taking any medication for schizophrenia is telling, Dietz said. Without any medication to blunt their impact, the delusions the defense maintains that Bowers experiences should have been observable to him, Dietz said.
In addition, schizophrenia gets worse with time if not treated, Dietz said.
“If I were working for the defense in [this] case, I would surely recommend [they] get a treating doctor to consider medicating [Bowers]," he said.
Bowers does have schizoid personality disorder, a maladaptive, learned behavior, Dietz said. He “responded with depression and anger” to a challenging childhood, and he became a loner and didn’t live up to his potential, the psychiatrist added.
This disorder often lasts into adulthood but isn’t necessarily permanent, Dietz said. He said he diagnosed Bowers with this disorder because of his tendency to want to be by himself, his lack of close relationships, his indifference to praise or criticism, and his cold and affectless responses.
“He says he has interactions with other people, but most of his interactions with other people are passing small talk. The same thing was observed by his aunt, who said he was always superficial with her, that he didn't confide anything deep,” Dietz said. “I don't think he recognizes that there are many people who confide in others and have deep intimate relationships.”
A schizoid personality disorder is not a mental illness, Dietz said, and the difference between a disorder and a mental illness is key.
“These are repetitive ways of relating to the world rather than reflecting underlying pathology of the body,” he said.
Dietz’s testimony will continue Monday morning.
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