INSANE VERDICT

The prosecutors paid lip service to Vince Greer's mental illness, but they never really understood it. Apparently the jury didn't, either

On day eight of Vince Greer's murder trial, the St. Louis County jury filed out of the courtroom. It was now their turn to decide: Either Vince was schizophrenic and had been psychotic when he wounded his father and killed his mother or he was one more angry teenager, maybe a little sick but fully aware of what he was doing.

Hopeful family members squeezed each other's hands as the jury left last Thursday, and again 12 hours later, when they sent word that they'd reached their verdict. But as the foreman rose, several jurors started crying, and one sobbed so uncontrollably she had to be escorted from the room.

They had just found a 17-year-old boy with mental illness -- 15 at the time of his crimes -- guilty of murder in the first degree, assault in the second degree and two counts of armed criminal action, and they had sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

Defense attorney Brad Kessler on Vince Greer (above): "Vince Greer would have been better served if he'd killed himself that day, because he got no justice here."
Jennifer Silverberg
Defense attorney Brad Kessler on Vince Greer (above): "Vince Greer would have been better served if he'd killed himself that day, because he got no justice here."

"Vince Greer would have been better served -- " his attorney, Brad Kessler, started to tell the waiting TV cameras. "You want my opinion? Vince Greer would have been better served if he'd killed himself that day, because he got no justice here."

Hours later, resignation had chilled at least the surface of Kessler's anger. "The insanity defense just doesn't work," he said wearily. "I'd rather argue that a stranger came in and did this."

Gary Hawk, a faculty member at the University of Virginia's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, says the defense actually does have a chance if the case is decided by a judge or if the experts on both sides agree: "In cases where insanity is at issue, it is very difficult for the defense to prevail. Juries are conservative; there is a great deal of sympathy for the prosecution and the victim. And jurors have many assumptions -- some of them really amounting to myths or prejudices -- about insanity. So when they are presented with conflicting psychiatric opinions, it's very common that they simply resolve it with a finding of guilt."

When professionals try to measure schizophrenia, they compare brain volume, neurotransmitter levels and aberrant cortical oscillations. All the jurors could do was listen again to Vince's taped confession to police, in which he sounded perfectly rational, and review the circumstantial evidence. They did request the reports of the two psychiatrists, both of whom had diagnosed schizophrenia, but one report hadn't been entered as an exhibit and the judge chose to withhold the other.

It probably wouldn't have mattered.

"We felt that he had just had enough with his parents and school," one juror tells The Riverfront Times, asking not to be named. "The fact that his grades went down and he stopped being a goody-goody boy and was having all kinds of sex with this young girl" (Vince's former girlfriend, Sarah Van Dyke, had testified about their relationship and Vince's smoking pot), "we just felt that he wasn't really as sick ... well, he may be sick, but we couldn't believe that a voice was telling him to do that."

Dr. John Rabun, the court-appointed forensic psychiatrist who'd listed 22 empirical reasons Vince could not have feigned his hallucinations ("Demons in the Courtroom," RFT, Jan. 12), had also testified at length about the effect of command hallucinations on behavior. But the jury wound up agreeing with the prosecutor's expert, psychologist Patricia Carter, who didn't believe the hallucinations were feigned or genuine. Carter, who'd diagnosed mood and conduct disorders and cannabis abuse, thought Vince was hearing his own thoughts and misperceiving them. Her reasons for that conclusion were the voices' infrequency and the inability of Vince's father to corroborate them.

In choosing between the dueling experts, the jury only had to pick the one whose credibility outweighed the other's by a grain of sand. They chose Carter, even though she admitted she'd seen only a handful of schizophrenic adolescents in her life and, as a psychologist, isn't medically qualified to treat a biological brain disease in the first place. "Maybe by the time he got to Rabun, he had his act down pretty well," said the juror, who thought all the testimony about "meandering" (malingering) was only emphasized so they would believe Rabun. "There's no question he's a bright man. But somehow his appearance, and the way he knitted his eyebrows -- there was something about him, we thought. Like they say about a lot of psychiatrists, they're not far off (from their patients).

"Today, the big thing in psychiatry is trying to convince people that they were abused when they were children," the juror adds. "So if psychiatrists can do that to a person, I don't know how much faith you can have. A neighbor who was a psychiatrist once told me, as far as something like schizophrenia, "These people are crazy, and we don't have anything we can do for them.' Except shock therapy. And not too many years ago they were doing those lobotomies."

Clearly there wasn't much awareness of the new anti-psychotic medications that have revolutionized the treatment of schizophrenia. Still, this juror was one of five who originally voted "not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect," simply because they couldn't see sending a teenager to prison for life. The vote changed, the juror says, mainly because they were afraid "he would then go to some hospital for a few weeks and almost immediately a judge would say there was nothing wrong with him, and they would have doctors who said there was nothing wrong with him, and they'd let him go, which clearly wasn't enough punishment."

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