New York State's highest court overturned the high-profile conviction of
the man with schizophrenia who murdered Kendra Webdale by pushing her in front
of a subway train in 1999.
The decision, which was handed down last month in the case The People
v. Andrew Goldstein, challenged the use of a psychiatrist's third-party
testimony for the prosecution. The psychiatrist had used interviews with the
defendant's acquaintances, former landlord, and roommate to conclude
Goldstein's mental health problems were not the cause of his actions. The
defense maintained that acute symptoms of his previously diagnosed
schizophrenia prevented him from knowing that his actions were wrong.
New York's Court of Appeals ruled that Goldstein's rights were violated
because the psychiatrist used descriptions of interviews with four people who
knew him to support her opinion, but Goldstein was not given the opportunity
to confront them. The interviews helped lead the psychiatrist to conclude that
Goldstein was a "predator, driven to acts of violence against women by
feelings of rejection and sexual frustration, who was using his schizophrenia
as an excuse for his actions," according to the ruling. The court
supported Goldstein's right to confront the interviewees in court and ordered
a new trial.
"This levels the playing field between prosecution and
defense," said Spencer Eth, M.D., who testified for the defense."
It's a challenge for the expert to convince the jury that the mental
illness is the reason for [the defendant's] behavior."
Eth is a professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry and
Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College.
The high court's ruling against psychiatrists' use of third-party testimony
without in-person testimony may encourage psychiatrists to rely solely upon
clinical records and patient examinations to assess the defendant's
responsibility for his actions, he told Psychiatric News.
The third-person interviews that the prosecution's forensic psychiatrist
used supplemented an examination of the defendant. Among those she interviewed
was a girlfriend of a former roommate who described teasing Goldstein and who
strongly resembled the victim. Another interviewee, a security guard who
previously restrained the defendant after he had attacked another woman, said
Goldstein immediately described himself as "a schizophrenic" who
needed help, according to the court ruling.
Phillip Resnick, M.D., director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at
Case Western Reserve University, took a position different from Eth's. Resnick
told Psychiatric News that forensic psychiatrists commonly use
third-party interviews to assess a defendant's mental state and relay them in
court testimony, especially in "big stakes" cases in which serious
crimes and potentially major sentences are involved.
Howard Zonana, M.D., medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry
and the Law (AAPL) and a member of APA's Committee on Judicial Action,
described interviews of "collateral sources" by forensic
psychiatrists assessing the mental state of criminal defendants as"
standard practice." AAPL's document "Forensic Psychiatric
Guidelines for Evaluation of Defendants Raising the Insanity Defense"
describes the procedures for interviewing collateral sources as part of the
Zonana noted that courts vary on how they allow that testimony in court.
The significance of third-party interviews in the forensic psychiatrist's
evaluation varies on a case-by-case basis. Barring the description of those
interviews in testimony could have a big impact in some cases.
"They would just have to say, `This is my assessment, and I can't
tell you why that is my conclusion,' because it is based in part on those
third-party interviews," Zonana said.
Resnick said he was comforted that the New York court required only those
associates of Goldstein whose interviews the psychiatrist described in court
to also testify. The ruling did not bar the use of the third-party interviews
in a psychiatrist's professional opinion of the mental state of a defendant at
the time a crime was committed. Most criminal cases require forensic
psychiatrists to testify to their opinion, rather than submit a written
report, because such reports could be demanded in their entirety by juries.
Juries may focus on aspects of the report that either the prosecution or
defense did not intend.
The ruling said the jury was unlikely to make the subtle distinction that
the psychiatrist's description of the third-party interviews was only to
assess his mental state and not meant as separate evidence of his guilt.
The state had not announced as of press time whether it will appeal the
decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or follow the state court's direction and
retry Goldstein, who remains incarcerated. If he is tried again, it will be
for the third time. In his first trial, the jury deadlocked on the issue of
Webdale's murder led New York to pass a law now popularly known as"
Kendra's Law," which mandates outpatient psychiatric treatment
for people with serious mental illness.
The decision in the The People v. Andrew Goldstein [2005 NY
Slip Op 09654] is posted at<www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2005/2005_09654.htm>.▪