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