Sunday, August 5, 2012

Psychiatrist accused of faking dementia to thwart retrial

Ayres found competent to stand trial in long-running molest case

William Ayres
In a dramatic twist to a case that's already had as many twists and turns as a roller coaster, allegations surfaced this week that psychiatrist William Ayres faked severe dementia in order to avoid a retrial on multiple charges of child molestation.

Ayres used his knowledge of psychiatry to circumvent psychological testing in an elaborate, two-year hoax, according to a report by state hospital psychologist John McIlnay. Around-the-clock observation at Napa State Hospital uncovered discrepancies between the dementia diagnosis and the day-to-day conduct of the former president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the psychologist reportedly wrote in a report filed under seal with the San Mateo County, California court.

Ayres, 80, was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of sexually abusing six boys, some of them sent to him by the juvenile courts, between 1988 and 1996. As I reported at the time, his 2009 criminal trial ended with a hung jury.

After that trial, a new lawyer took over the case and raised the issue of competency to stand trial. A jury trial on competency last year ended with another hung jury. The defense and the prosecution eventually stipulated that Ayres was incompetent and should be sent to Napa State Hospital. He was there for about nine months.

Vincent "The Chin" Gigante
Faking dementia is not commonplace or easy, but it can be done. The most famous case of a defendant faking dementia in order to avoid criminal trial was that of Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, a Mafia don who for years wandered the streets of New York City in a bathrobe. He fooled a bevy of eminent forensic psychologists for psychiatrists into believing he was both insane and demented.

Due to his medical training, a psychiatrist would have an advantage in faking a dementia and in avoiding obvious mistakes. But never letting down one's guard would be difficult in an environment of 24/7 observation. According to news reports, line staff such as nurses and janitors were among those who noticed discrepancies between Ayres's day-to-day functioning and his purported dementia. This was also what eventually tripped up Vincente Gigante; forensic evaluators who interviewed line staff in that case learned that "The Chin" had dropped his guard in jail, when outside the presence of evaluating psychologists and psychiatrists.

On the other hand, state hospital clinicians are rather notorious in local circles for being quick to label defendants as malingering, a topic on which I published a peer-reviewed case study a few years ago. The diagnosis helps open up space in the overcrowded competency restoration wards, which are under pressure from California judges to become more efficient and reduce long waiting periods for beds, and can rid staff of nettlesome criminal patients.

Also, as regular blog readers know, reasonable clinicians often differ as to whether someone is incompetent. In this case, the competency trial featured a 2-2 split of experts. The two original court-appointed psychologists, Paul Good and Jatinder Singh, both initially opined that Ayres was competent to stand trial. However, Singh later changed his mind, which prompted the appointment of a third, "tie-breaker" evaluator, psychiatrist George L Wilkenson, who also thought Ayres was competent. Joining those three as witnesses at last year's competency trial was a defense-retained neuropsychologist, Amanda Gregory, who opined that Ayres was incompetent.

The new hospital report will prompt yet another court hearing on competency. This time, a judge rather than a jury will make the decision on competency, with the defense having the burden of proving that the defendant is unfit for trial on nine felony child molestation charges. The October hearing will include a string of lay and expert witnesses and is anticipated to last about seven days.

My prior posts  (it's been a while) on the case

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