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The Jodi Arias Case: Controversial Theories and Junk Science in the Courtroom

March 17, 2013

A few years ago, I blogged about a case in Texas, The State of Texas v. Billy Joe Harris, where the defendant, charged with rape, was trying to plead insanity by claiming he had Dissociative Identity Disorder.  The defense’s expert witness attempted to argue that because DID was in the DSM, it was therefore scientific and valid. The prosecution’s expert witness challenged this and demonstrated that just because something was in the DSM, that did not mean it was necessarily scientifically valid. The DSM represents consensus of those on the DSM committee and is all too often more political than it is scientific. Ultimately, the junk science in this case was defeated, thanks to R. Chris Barden, PhD, JD’s expert testimony for the prosecution and the defendant was found guilty of rape.

We now have another case, the State of Arizona v. Jodi Arias, this one airing on national television for all to see, where highly questionable and controversial theories about traumatic amnesia are being misrepresented as unquestioned science by defense expert witness Richard Samuels. This case begs for the kind of expert rebuttal witnesses for the prosecution that the State of Texas was fortunate to have. Let’s hope such witnesses are lined up to refute the expert witness testimony that has been given by the defense’s expert. Prosecutor Juan Martinez is doing an excellent job in presenting a compelling case against Arias, but he  really needs a strong expert witness to refute the many layers problems with Samuels’ testimony. It is questionable if Arias even suffers from PTSD, but even if she does, the notion that her memory would be permanently wiped out for the incident in question, even five years later, is scientifically, highly improbable. To have an effective rebuttal to the tangled web being woven by Samuels, all these layers of problems with Samuels’ testimony need to be challenged.

Samuels proudly held up and read from a copy of the DSM during his testimony, as if it were the Holy Bible, praising it as being written by “learned” professionals as if its authority was above question. Far from it. In recent years, during the development of DSM V there has been massive protest against many of its proposed diagnoses, as well as already existing ones that are not sufficiently supported by scientific evidence. More than 7000 psychologists, psychiatrist and clinical social workers signed an open letter to protest several of the proposed changes. In other words, in the opinion of many scientific mental health professionals, the DSM is loaded with junk science, not only the changes, but with some of the existing diagnoses as well. The fact that something appears in the DSM does not mean that it will meet the Daubert standard for scientific evidence, as was demonstrated in the State of Texas v. Billy Joe Harris. The defense expert in that case, Colin Ross, tried to argue that because DID was in the DSM, it was scientific. Thanks to the prosecution’s expert witness, R. Chris Barden who debunked that notion, the defense failed. This is a notion that also needs to be debunked in the Jodi Arias case, this time for what is being claimed regarding PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder.

Jodi Arias has been charged with first degree murder in the death of Travis Alexander. If convicted, she could get the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole. She has already admitted that she was the one who shot Travis Alexander in the head, stabbed him 29 times and slit his throat from ear-to-ear.  She claims that she did it in self defense (even though the facts of the case thus far presented do not appear to support this and she gives a story that sounds highly implausible and the prosecution who, in my opinion, has demonstrated was physically impossible for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this article). Arias testified that a mental “fog” rolled in and she cannot remember anything beyond the initial stages of the incident. In other words, she forgot that she stabbed him 29 times and slit his throat.

The defense expert is claiming she suffers from PTSD and amnesia. In reading the DSM criteria for PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder, he points out that one of the symptoms listed ( for Acute Stress Disorder) is inability to remember parts of the trauma — in her case, stabbing him 29 times and slitting his throat. What Samuels either seems to be unaware of or is not disclosing is that this notion of traumatic amnesia has been repeatedly challenged in the literature on PTSD and trauma and there are peer reviewed publications that have proposed eliminating the association of the criteria for Acute Stress Disorder (which includes forgetting important parts of the trauma and other dissociative symptoms) with PTSD. The fact that it wasn’t, doesn’t prove that the decision was scientific. This is nothing more than a political victory that does nothing to change the fact that there is very little scientific support for the notion of traumatic amnesia. The point here is that controversial notions have no business being presented in a court of law, especially when they are being presented as if they are uncontroversial, undisputed facts when they are far from it.

Go here to read all that psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, the main founder of the DSM who is now highly critical of many aspects of it and his esteemed coauthors see as being wrong with the current DSM-IV-TR criteria for PTSD, the edition being so revered by Jodi Arias’ defense expert. Harvard Psychology Professor Richard J. McNally writes that “Controversy has haunted the diagnosis of posttraumatic  stress disorder since its first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

In a peer reviewed article entitled “Saving PTSD from itself in DSM-V, critiquing the DSM IV-TR PTSD diagnosis, published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Spitzer and his coauthors, in their analysis of what is wrong with the DSM definition of PTSD, list many proposed changes.  Here are some of the ones most relevant to the Jodi Arias case.

On malingering (faking a PTSD diagnosis), Spitzer and his colleagues write:

Malingering – the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms motivated by external incentives – is a potential explanation for any psychiatric presentation, but is of particular concern with PTSD since the diagnosis often results in findings of disability or entitlement to financial compensation. Although malingering is included in the differential diagnosis section of the DSM-IV text for PTSD, we think that it would be useful to specifically remind clinicians that malingering needs to be considered and ruled out. This goal can be accomplished by explicitly including this consideration within the diagnostic criteria.

Contrary to what Samuels would have us believe, PTSD is not at all difficult to fake. There are all kinds of popular books available to the public on PTSD that describe it very thoroughly, which Jodi Arias could have had access to and she is certainly bright enough to understand them and incorporate them into her narrative. Spitzer points out that financial compensation would be motive to malinger. Having the possibility of the death penalty hanging over ones head, as is the case with Jodi Arias, would be even more of a motive.

Regarding Acute Stress Disorder, which was brought up repeatedly by Samuels, these authors proposed deleting this altogether from the DSM because the evidence of its association with PTSD is really very weak and points out that the research evidence shows that only a minority of PTSD cases started out as ASD, which is contrary to what Samuels would have us believe.  Although about three-quarters of people diagnosed with ASD do go onto develop PTSD, most of those with the PTSD diagnosis never had ASD. Therefore the assumption that someone with PTSD first had ASD is highly unwarranted. See the difference.

This is of critical importance to the Jodi Arias case, since it is the symptoms of ASD (which can only be diagnosed for a month following the trauma), not PTSD that include dissociative amnesia or inability to remember the trauma or parts of it.  Since it hasn’t been demonstrated as far as I can tell from the evidence I have heard, that Jodi Arias was examined and diagnosed with ASD within one month of the trauma (at that time she was still by her own later admission, lying about two intruders killing Travis and was not yet claiming to have amnesia), we cannot assume she ever had ASD. The fact she now has a diagnosis of PTSD, does not necessarily mean she ever had ASD. The bulk of the scientific evidence shows that people with PTSD remember their trauma all too well — in fact they are tormented by their traumas to the point where they wish they could forget about the trauma, but they cannot stop thinking about it. The person who suffers from PTSD is often so absorbed by the traumatic event, that he or she becomes forgetful of everyday things, but not of the trauma itself, which is vividly remembered.

That being said, the entire concept of dissociative amnesia is highly questionable and as Richard J. McNally and others have demonstrated in numerous publications, much of the evidence claimed to support it, does not, when examined closely, support it.

Will the prosecution rebuttal witnesses have the knowledge necessary to refute the highly controversial notions presented incorrectly as undisputed science that the jury has been subjected to by the defense? The trial is still in progress. The first defense expert is currently testifying (to be continued tomorrow), which will be followed by his cross-examination, another defense expert witness and the prosecution’s rebuttal case. Stay tuned. The trial can be watched either online or on HLN.

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9 Comments
  1. Well, I am not a mental health professional. So, I cannot make any conclusions regarding Jodi Arias’ mental health and the diagnoses of ASD and PTSD. However, crime detection is one of the things I am really interested in and I know quite a lot about it. Anyway, I do not think that it was a planned and cold-blooded murder. Why did she shoot Travis Alexander in the head, then stabbed him 29 times and then slit his throat from ear-to-ear? It was sufficient just to shoot him in the head to kill him and probably he was already dead after that. Then, why did she stab him 29 times and slit his throat? Well, when murderers behave like this, it usually indicates that they almost do not control themselves or do not control themselves at all either because of very intensive emotions or because of mental problems or because of both reasons together. If Jodi Arias had been calm, committing this murder, she would have just shoot him in the head one time, and, if he had been alive after that, she could have shoot him again, but she would not have stabbed him 29 times and slit his throat unless she tried to simulate a mental disorder. But even when murderers simulate mental disorders, they usually use other ways.

    As for the due punishment for her actions, it is up to the judges to decide. The only thing I want to mention is that I am against death penalty, especially, in this case. Breivik killed 77 people, but he was sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment because death penalty had been abolished in Norway. It would be unfair to execute Arias while Breivik was not executed and will not be.

    One of the problems with death penalty is that there is always a possibility that a person may be executed by mistake. One example. Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo was convinced of 52 murders of women and children which he had committed between 1978 to 1990, thought he himself admitted that he had killed 56 people and according to the information that detectives had, he had killed over 65 people. He was executed in 1994. However, it is often hard to investigate serial murders, and it took many years before Chikatilo was identified as a person who committed these murders. In 1983, another person, Aleksandr Kravchenko was judged for one of the murders committed by Chikatilo and executed. In 1990, after Chikatilo was arrested, Kravchenko was acquitted, but he was already dead by that time.

    In 1996, the use of the death penalty in Russia was limited and since 1997 it was not used at all. It was indefinitely suspended, although not completely abolished. However, since that time, no one could be executed in Russia. I think it is good also because death penalty can be used in political repressions, as it often happened in the Soviet Union.

    However, in the Soviet Union, there were some legal privileges for women (they are kept in modern Russia), and one of them was that death penalty could not be applied to women. It is interesting that long time before the Soviet Union came to existence, Chechens had a similar approach. Chechens did not have prisons, but they had vendetta. If a man killed another man, he was killed for murder (usually, by the victim’s relative or friend). A woman who committed a murder could not be killed. If a man killed a woman, two men (the murderer and his close relative) were killed. Not only a man who killed a woman, but also the one who raped her, was killed. It was so because women were highly respected in Chechen society and so women’s lives and dignity were valued higher than men’s lives and dignity. People may have different attitude to this tradition, but I personally like it.

    Well, some conservative Christians believe that death penalty was established by God and refer to Genesis 9:6. However, strictly speaking, this verse can be interpreted as both establishment of death penalty and establishment of vendetta. Some verses in the Old Testament (for example, Numbers 35:19, 21) allowed vendetta. In my opinion, there is not much difference between vendetta and death penalty. The main difference is that vendetta is carried out by the victim’s relative or friend, that is, by an individual or a group of individuals, while death penalty is carried out by the government or the social institutions.

    Anyway, I am pro-life. I highly value human life. And this is why I am against death penalty per se and, especially, am against death penalty when the case and circumstances are not clear enough, like in Jodi Arias’ case.

    • JAA permalink

      I won’t reply to any of the above feelings posted in the Comments section about the death penalty, or criticize anyone’s comments about those feelings of being ProLife, I would like to make note that the posts regarding both “feelings and beliefs” are not specifically related to the above article. It should be noted that the victim in this case did suffer through 29 stab wounds, but some were to the back, back of the head, hands, legs, and bottoms of the feet, besides the ones to his chest. This would show that the victim was not just shot and then stabbed 29 times, but was most likely trying to fend off the knife attack. If the shot happened first, and rendered him (Travis) “dead” as another post suggests, Travis would not have been alive to defend himself from the knife attack. So either he was stabbed first then shot, or you have to believe he was shot first but able to move his arms and legs during the knife attack. The way I read the above article, it is authored by another qualified professional pointing out the unprofessional testimony of the “expert” witness, and the issues regarding his testimony about a medical opinion that does not seem accurate to other professionals in that field. That’s all.

      • Buffy Singleton permalink

        True – how would he have defensive wounds on his hands if he was already dead when she was stabbing him??!!

    • Buffy Singleton permalink

      But the theory of shooting him first is her LATEST VERSION OF THE STORY!!! The Medical Examiner testified that is is most likely that the shot was LAST because even though he was somewhat decomposed, THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE OF BLEEDING/HEMORRHAGE IN THE BRAIN! Therefore, he would have had to already be dead when he was shot!!

  2. Buffy Singleton permalink

    NOT to mention . . . . the HUGE pool of blood on the carpet/hallway area – had to come from her slitting his throat – and her OBVIOUSLY was still alive then!

    • JAA permalink

      Miss Buffy, I agree with all of your above posts. I tried to keep my reply/response short re: Borz post, so I didn’t put my own opinions in there, I just wanted to point out to Borz that his statements were not accurate regarding all of the injuries the victim suffered. I agree that the shot was last, that the bullet trajectory is consistent with her standing over him and shooting him as he was in the shower, maybe because his body was still moving, gasping, or twitching (even after stabs and throat). I would agree that the blood evidence does show Ms Arias 3rd story to be false as well. I came across this article while researching the opinions of other mental health professionals and how they would critique Dr Samuel’s testimony for this case. I am still questioning why Dr Samuels would risk his career for this case. In my opinion, he did not appear to be a creditable witness on the stand. His testing process seemed very flawed, the results of those tests still did not meet the required criteria for his “expert” diagnosis (until he attpted to amend areas over 2 years later while on the stand), his relationship with her could appear unprofessional and beyond that of an evaluating psychologist, and he never filed appropriate adendoms to his original report to document those areas (amending the criteria for the exam areas C & D, known lies of Ms Arias – previous anal sex lie). I am fascinated to understand why he never attempted to correct himself, (either through additional reports, testimony during cross) instead, of all of the problems and defects with his work coming out on cross exam. Did he do this to protect his client because he is fond of her, because his Ego got in the way, or because he doesn’t think any of this was a problem until caught by the prosecution. I would enjoy to see the above author try and explain why Dr Samuels did not try and save himself and his own reputation as an Expert, instead of making it worse for himself by standing behind a very flawed overall expert service.

  3. microfiche permalink

    In addition to the defects in his work product, Dr. Samuel’s opinions appeared (to me) patently biased. In all matters, he appeares to assume the defendant’s point-of-view.

  4. Well, I do not live in the USA. I do not watch US television every day. And I do not know all the details of this case. In my comment, I replied to Monica’s post where she stated: “She has already admitted that she was the one who shot Travis Alexander in the head, stabbed him 29 times and slit his throat from ear-to-ear… Arias testified that a mental “fog” rolled in and she cannot remember anything beyond the initial stages of the incident. In other words, she forgot that she stabbed him 29 times and slit his throat.” To me, this looked like that Jodi Arias first shot Travis Alexander in the head, then stabbed him 29 times and then slit his throat from ear-to-ear. I do not know what actually took place there. In addition, this case seems to be quite complicated, with various versions of the events presented, and so on.

  5. Arabian Rider permalink

    Thanks much for your analysis, it’s good to hear some objective analysis of this “experts” hypothesis and I also look forward to the prosecution’s responding expert.

    It seems to me the entire diagnosis of PTSD is not part of a defense because Jodi supposedly got PTSD from killing Travis. It does nothing to explain the premeditation, the killing itself or the clean-up, then cover-up. If she “suffers” from PTSD now, well perhaps that Mother Nature’s own punishment, though not nearly enough.

    As far as Samuels, I was really shocked when he was describing Jodi driving away, “traumatized” with “no one to call, no family” and used the word extraordinary (or something similar). I cannot imagine anything more offensive and is clearly an admission he completely lost all objectivity. Personally I don’t think he’s ever been an objective practitioner.

    Thanks again for a very informative and insightful article.

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