- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

About 5 years ago the “60 Minutes” show had a segment that provided tremendous understanding of the lack of validity of psychiatric testimony in criminal justice cases. The issue was whether Vincent “the Chin” Gigante was legally competent to stand trial It was titled “Crazy as a Fox?”

Gigante was allegedly the leader of the nation’s largest criminal organization, the Genovese family. For about 30 years he had been walking around, as Charles Rose, the prosecutor who investigated Gigante described it, talking to telephone poles. It was all a ruse, Mr. Rose told Ed Bradley on that show: Gigante knew his choice was clear: He could walk around in a bathrobe and slippers on the street or wear a bathrobe in prison, as had happened to Gigante’s enemy, John Gotti. “Not once,” said Mr. Rose, did he think Gigante was mentally ill. Gigante was convicted in 1997 for racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder.

But to the naked eye Gigante was crazy, and some impressive sources thought so too. There was a “Who’s Who” of defense psychiatrists quoted on that “60 Minutes” show, but none of the prosecution’s psychiatrists was a guest on the show. The psychiatrists included Harvard University’s Thomas Gutheil, Columbia University’s Donald Klein, University of Texas’ William Reed, Cornell University’s Wilford Van Gorp, New York University’s Stanley Portnow and New York Medical College’s Abraham Halpern.

These psychiatrists had testified in the prior year that Gigante was neither competent to stand trial nor to be sentenced. None of the physicians had the slightest doubt Gigante was genuinely mentally ill and too mentally ill to stand trial or be sentenced. Moreover, all of them said on the show they had been made aware that Gigante had been alleged to have feigned mental illness to avoid prison.

Dr. Reed said Gigante had “very likely an underlying, longstanding psychotic illness not unlike schizophrenia.” Dr. Van Gorp said, “I have worked with dementia patients for many years. He is exactly the kind of patient we see in a dementia clinic.” Dr Portnow added that Gigante “was truly a very sick individual.”

Even more remarkable than the foregoing diagnoses was the assessment on the show by defense expert Dr. Monte Buchsbaum, introduced as a “world-renowned neuropsychiatrist.” Host Bradley asked, “Could [Gigante] have fooled a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan that assesses activity in the brain?”

Dr. Buchsbaum told Mr. Bradley that Gigante’s scan revealed “diminished activity consistent with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or possibly other dementing diseases.”

Mr. Rose turned out to be correct: it was all a ruse.

On April 7 of this year Gigante testified that he knowingly and intentionally misled doctors who were evaluating his competency to stand trial, and as one newspaper described him, “the weak dispirited man of a few minutes earlier disappeared.” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf stated that not everyone was fooled: “Those of us in law enforcement always knew it was an act.”

Those like Dr. Thomas Szasz who have argued for decades against psychiatrists’ testifying in the courtroom get a big boost from these events. It would be interesting to hear from psychiatrists how they could have been fooled by Vincent Gigante, how valid PET scans are and why psychiatric testimony in insanity and competency cases should been seen as valid.

And it would be interesting to see a “60 Minutes” follow-up.

Richard E. Vatz is professor at Towson University and associate psychology editor at USA Today Magazine.

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