March 18, 2010

Jury rejects Samenow’s lone insanity opinion

During one of my stints as a prison clinician, I had the unfortunate experience of being supervised by a psychologist who believed that prisoners were monsters bent on manipulation, and who thus tried to thwart my attempts to provide treatment. That psychologist's favorite book: Stanton Samenow's Inside the Criminal Mind.

"Criminals think differently" is the basic premise of the well-worn treatise. Samenow rejects out-of-hand most mainstream sociological, environmental, traumatogenic, developmental, biological, and psychological theories of crime, labeling them as absurd, simplistic, or even plain "kooky":
[C]riminals are not mentally ill or hapless victims of oppressive social conditions…. Despite a multitude of differences in their backgrounds and crime patterns, criminals are all alike in one way: how they think…. [A]ll regard the world as a chessboard over which they have total control, and they perceive people as pawns to be pushed around at will…. Some of their most altruistic acts have sinister motives.
Samenow promotes this popular rhetoric on national TV and radio shows such as Good Morning America and the Larry King show. In court, the well-known psychologist has testified for many decades in insanity cases, being called exclusively by the prosecution to attack defendants' claims of insanity. Over time, this one-sidedness started working to defense attorneys' advantage; they were able to rebut his testimony simply by telling juries that Samenow always testified against insanity. (Here is a recent example.)

This month, however, Samenow broke with tradition and for the first time opined in court that a defendant met the legal standard for insanity. He picked a rather unusual case. Unlike most defendants who plead insanity, Evan D. Gargiulo, being prosecuted in Virginia for the shooting death of a cab driver, had no history of psychiatric disorder. The competitive swimmer and former college swim team coach was an engineer for Lockheed Martin and a lieutenant in the National Guard when he shot Mazhar Nazir in the back of the head with his 9 mm pistol.

Gargiulo testified that he shot Nazir in self defense when the Pakistani-born cabbie tried to grab him. He said that after getting a taxi ride home from a nightclub, he realized he had lost his wallet. He went into his apartment, retrieved his gun and car keys, and had Nazir drive him to his car. Once there, he realized he had also lost a roll of cash so could not pay his $130 fare. It was at that point, he claimed, that Nazir became angry and reached over the seat to grab him, making him fear for his safety. The hapless driver died from a single gunshot to the back of his head.

Samenow testified that Gargiulo had led such a sheltered life, and had developed such an exaggerated paranoia, that he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the crime. As Tom Jackman of the Washington Post reported it:
Samenow said Gargiulo's dismay at being robbed and his "enormous fear" of Nazir caused him to shoot without thinking of the consequences. "I haven't encountered somebody with this level of fear," Samenow said. He said there is no formal definition of Gargiulo's mental condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the accepted reference book for courts trying to parse mental illness and criminal culpability.

Samenow said later that his first appearance for the defense in an insanity case in 40 years showed that he has an open mind after decades of examining mentally ill defendants and finding them criminally responsible. He testified that he was paid $25,000 by the defense, which rested with Samenow as its only witness.
The jury didn't buy either the self defense or insanity defenses. After six hours of deliberations, it convicted Gargiulo of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. To the disappointment of the victim's family, that was 25 years less than the maximum the jury could have imposed.

Gargiulo photo courtesy Fairfax County (Virginia) Police Department


Neuroskeptic said...

What a bizarre episode... why do you think he did it? For the money or...?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi Neuroskeptic,
I wouldn't want to venture an opinion, without substantially more information. But it is highly unusual for an expert to opine that someone was insane, absent any history of mental illness or disability. Fear, even if reasonable (which this jury seems to have decided it was not), would not in and of itself be the basis for an insanity claim. In cases like this one, intoxication and/or anger may be relevant elements. Here, the cross-cultural piece is also intriguing to consider. But, again, I would need to know more; I based this post solely on the Washington Post coverage.

drew said...

surely, claiming that the defendant was scared at the time would, in all liklihood, call for a plea of self defence, just a little confused by the insanity claim.