DEMONS IN THE COURTROOM 

Vince Greer heard voices in his head, then killed his mother. But prosecutors have their own departures from reality.

The morning Vince Greer's murder trial began, an illustrator for TV news sat on the first bench in the crowded St. Louis County courtroom, pastels and pencils awkwardly strewn around him. Taking advantage of the trial's delayed start, he gazed steadily at the defendant, making rapid arcs of color that contrasted with Vince's pale stillness yet captured every curve and angle of his young face. Soon Vince's father, Stan Greer, got up and crossed the aisle to peer at the sketch.

No victim has ever looked with such love at the image of his wife's killer.To the Greer family -- and that includes the relatives of Donna Greer, Vince's murdered mother -- the mystery was why the state wanted to prosecute an obviously sick child as a criminal adult. Surely only schizophrenia (the firm diagnosis of two psychiatrists, one of them court-appointed) could explain Vince's actions at 7 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1997, one week after his 15th birthday ("Dangerous Minds, RFT, March 25, 1998).

To St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough, who'd stepped in to try the case himself, something as subjective and easily manufactured as "voices" was no explanation for matricide. In the state's view, Vince was a good kid turned bad; he'd reached puberty, started smoking pot and skipping school, gotten angry with his parents, taken his dad's .22-caliber rifle and shot them. Lying on the floor behind the couch, he'd fired at his father, wounding him, then run around the outside of the house and up the deck, unjamming the rifle as he went. Crashing through a glass door, he held the rifle to his mother's temple as she lay huddled with his sister on the floor, then shot a bullet through her brain. Motive was irrelevant. He'd known what he was doing.

McCullough treated this Greek tragedy like any other case of first-degree murder, first-degree assault and armed criminal action. He opened his case by playing the 911 tape of Lindsay Greer, Vince's then-13-year-old sister, screaming for help as she held her dying mother's body. He played the tape of Vince confessing the crime. He called a ballistics expert who described, in exacting detail, the science of cartridge markings. He asked the medical examiner, Dr. Mary Case, to describe the seared, sooty edge of the contact wound on Donna Greer's temple and tell the jury how "the velocity of the bullet is released into the tissue," setting off vibrations in the skull and breaking the thin shelf of bone over the eyes.

The defense wasn't denying any of that. What Vince's attorneys wanted to show was why, and therefore in what state of mind, he had killed. First they hammered away at the St. Ann police officers' flat reports ("What have you done to determine why Vince Greer shot his mother and father?" "Did you ever ask him what kind of trouble he was having?" "Do you know what schizophrenia is?") Then they chipped at the old stereotypes of mental illness ("Would you expect to see bizarre twitchings and turnings in someone who has schizophrenia?" "What you are saying is, the guy didn't jump around like a lunatic.") Finally they brought in the teachers who'd urged the Greers to get their son help and the psychiatrists who'd eventually -- too late -- diagnosed schizophrenia.

In the end, the trial was not a weighing of factual evidence (virtually none was in dispute) but a battle over interpreting human behavior. Precedent put the odds on the state's side; rarely is anyone acquitted of such a horrific crime because of a mental disease or defect, and the rarity has increased in St. Louis County under McCullough's leadership. Missouri law doesn't allow a "guilty but insane" formulation, and the very word "acquittal" panics people who don't know the defendant will be committed indefinitely to the custody of the Department of Mental Health -- or don't trust that custody.

Asked what he looked for in selecting the jury, chief defense attorney Brad Kessler tossed back a single word: "smart" -- jurors with enough intelligence to at least begin to fathom the cold medical mystery of schizophrenia and integrate that knowledge into a legal framework biased against its existence.

When we went to press Tuesday afternoon, those jurors hadn't even begun their deliberation.

Schizophrenia is a biological disease associated with a progressive deterioration in the circuitry between the frontal and temporal lobes. Usually beginning between ages 14 and 30, with an earlier onset for males, it seems to have a genetic component. (Vince had at least two schizophrenic relatives, and a third committed suicide, a frequent outcome of schizophrenia.) The illness is punctuated by psychotic breaks from reality -- delusions (fixed false beliefs) and hallucinations (false sensory perceptions) -- as well as disconnections between feelings and thoughts, disruptions in the ability to think rationally and periods of agitation or stupor.

Another common symptom is "flat affect" -- a stiff, constrained facial expression, as though someone has cut the puppet strings the mind uses to pull the face into a show of feeling. Psychiatrists weren't the first to notice this in Vince; teachers, friends and family members all described a loss of animation, and they also mentioned seeing a "glossed-over," "glazed," "dull" or "strange" look in his eyes on several occasions before the November shooting. His principal at Ritenour High School, Cathy Nickens, ran into him in the hall earlier that fall, and the look in his eyes so alarmed her, she took him to the counselor's office immediately. Even St. Ann police officer Brad Morris noted that when officers questioned Vince right after the shooting, "his facial expression didn't really change" and most of the time he sat quietly, impassive and nearly motionless.

What the police didn't know, and the prosecution didn't believe, was that Vince had been hearing voices for almost a year. He described them as both male and female -- sometimes a voice would sound like his dad, at other times like a stranger. Vince said the voices told him he was ugly and stupid and worthless, that he'd be better off dead. They urged violence or told him to run away. He began to think people were staring at him or could hear his thoughts. He eventually told psychiatrists that on the night before the shooting, he lay awake on the floor between the couch and the wall, restless and agitated, listening to the voices tell him how no one wanted him and everything would be better if he was dead. At one point, he said, he had the butt of the gun on the ground and his thumb on the trigger. And then the voices changed, told him he needed to kill his parents and said that afterward, "everything would be a lot better."

The shooting took place in November of Vince's freshman year; his behavior and personality had begun to change the previous December. Before that, Vince Greer had been every parent's ideal child. Quick to obey or help, unfailingly polite, he'd been a presidential scholar and a star athlete and president of his middle school's student council, and he'd tested in the top 10 percent of children his age on standardized tests. Teachers described him as bright-eyed, happy, smart, creative, popular -- and quick to befriend kids who weren't. "Just put him in my group," he'd told teacher Connie Burkhardt when a student in their gifted program wasn't getting along well with the others.

Burkhardt testified about the day Vince "came to my class late and said a lady with real white hair had told him he should stay in the cafeteria." Because Vince had always been honest and punctual, Burkhardt racked her brain to identify the mystery woman. Then she started seeing subtler changes -- a loss of enthusiasm, a drop in the quality of his work. "He didn't disrupt the class; he didn't cause any problems; he just wasn't with the group. I began to worry that there was something really wrong."

Outside school, he'd begun withdrawing from friends and family, watching TV alone in the basement, hanging out with troubled kids, smoking pot. He started running away from home and threatening suicide. By the fall of freshman year, he was making D's and F's. Teachers and even close relatives urged the Greers to get Vince into counseling. Donna agreed; Stan thought they could handle it themselves. He was terrified that if they forced some kind of treatment, his son would kill himself -- because that's exactly what happened to a friend of Stan's at the same age.

Finally, on Nov. 24, two days before the shooting, Nickens, the Ritenour principal, sat Stan down in her office and said bluntly, "Your son needs psychiatric help." She wrote down several names and numbers. Stan brought the note home to Donna and told her he was ready to make the appointment; could she please check into their insurance?

She never got a chance.

The prosecutor's office looked first not at Vince's medical history but at the crime and its aftermath: Vince's coherent, step-by-step confession; his ability to answer the police officers' questions; his statement to police that he'd run upstairs intending to kill everybody and stop them from calling 911. Surely this was rational behavior with criminal intent. Maybe Vince did have, as psychologists in the juvenile system had suggested, a conduct disorder, or a mood disorder, or "cannabis (marijuana) abuse." But the only indication of psychosis was his report of "voices," and that wasn't exactly hard science compared with pools of blood and spent cartridges.

What about the previous year, with all its warning signs? In McCullough's version, Vince was ignoring relatives on holidays because he was moody and sitting alone on the other side of the bleachers at his dad's hockey game because he was mad at his family. His grades dropped not because he couldn't focus or concentrate (a common symptom of mental illness) but because he'd stopped doing the work. He lost enthusiasm for sports, and everything else he once loved, because he was smoking pot.

As for the four episodes of running away that Vince's parents called inexplicable, McCullough took them lightly: "He never packed his bags and took off and went to Florida, right?" Besides, there were reasons; McCullough suggested that on one occasion, Vince might have run away planning to kill himself because he'd lied about calling his girlfriend on his parents' cell phone, and he knew he'd be in trouble.

Vince's parents hadn't approved of his girlfriend; in fact, they'd tried to stop the relationship. Called as a rebuttal witness for the prosecution, Sarah Van Dyke testified on Tuesday that they'd smoked pot and skipped school and engaged in sexual intimacy. She said that Vince once worried that his dad might be cheating on his wife because he had found a black miniskirt (relatives say it belonged to a doll). She said Vince didn't ever yell or become aggressive but did sometimes get upset about little things. She said he and his mom used to argue about school stuff (this was the period during which his grades plummeted).

Sarah said she saw no signs of mental illness yet testified that she once saw him hold a gun to his head. On cross-examination, she also said Vince had complained of anxiety and had talked about killing himself three or four times.

Kessler's cross-examination widened the cracks in Sarah's testimony, showing that she was contradicting, in multiple places, her own grand-jury testimony from two years ago -- and the prosecutor's office, having elicited both, should have seen the discrepancies.

Dr. James Edwards, a child psychiatrist who examined Vince less than three weeks after the shooting and testified for the defense, rendered a diagnosis of schizophrenia without hesitation. He told McCullough it was perfectly possible for Vince to have experienced hallucinations and delusions yet have answered the police's questions rationally and accurately. (One of Edwards' schizophrenic patients worked quite efficiently for the Internal Revenue Service, he pointed out, all the while believing that aliens were beaming her messages.)

It was also plausible that Vince would have kept the voices he heard a secret, Edwards continued. "That's the last thing anybody -- especially a kid -- wants somebody to know." (Shortly after the shooting, Scott Telle told the RFT about times when Vince, with a "strange" expression on his face, had asked Scott whether he'd heard something. Later, when Vince's dad asked him why he hadn't told anyone about the voices, Vince said Scott had reacted so badly that he hadn't dared.)

Still, how could the court be sure Vince wasn't, as the prosecution suggested, "malingering," faking psychiatric symptoms to avoid a murder rap? After all, he'd written Sarah from the juvenile detention center: "How you doin,' sweetie? It gets worse and worse in here.... I'm gonna get off, baby. He (Vince's first lawyer) told me I can get off telling the court I'm crazy." Vince also promised that, if he was transferred to a lower-security prison, he would escape. Sarah turned the letters over to the police.

To McCullough this was conclusive evidence, but Edwards wasn't fazed. "You're 15 years old, you're scared, you're schizophrenic -- schizophrenia would not necessarily make you not have thoughts about running." Nor would you necessarily believe your own diagnosis; by its very nature, schizophrenia drops a curtain over its own reality, obscuring insight.

Dr. John S. Rabun, a Department of Mental Health forensic psychiatrist appointed by the court to evaluate Vince's mental state, probed even further, and, after diagnosing undifferentiated schizophrenia, came up with 22 distinct reasons to believe Vince was not malingering. "The crux of the whole matter is whether or not he was hearing voices at the moment this event began," testified Rabun. "I went to great depth as to what they said, the types of voices, their gender, rather than just saying, "Do you hear voices?' and allowing him to say yes and leave it at that."

Rabun, still testifying for the defense, said Vince's descriptions of the voices were consistent over several examinations months apart and that they were consistent with clinical reports of schizophrenia. He didn't fall for trick questions or locate the voices inside his head, as many fakers do. He said the voices went away when school started -- a pattern unknown to most laypeople. He described olfactory hallucinations whose infrequency and putrid smell jibed with little-known clinical findings. He didn't even tell police about the voices when he confessed; in fact, when Rabun asked Vince whether he thought he was insane, he said no. A malingerer would have said yes in a heartbeat; overplayed his symptoms, Hollywood-style; or made deliberate cognitive mistakes, thinking that mental illness meant retardation.

Couldn't Vince have researched successful malingering? "I know of only two places, and those are in the forensic literature, that discuss voices at this depth," said Rabun. "Vince Greer would have to know the two principal authors" -- and have access to their texts, and be able to understand their jargon.

He'd also have to know how to confound the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which is specifically designed to uncover malingering. Vince was twice given the adolescent version. His results "strongly" suggested "psychotic episodes and thinking, with very high levels of anxiety, tension, and sometimes fear," to the psychologist who read the first test; the second psychologist said Vince's answers might be a bit exaggerated, but "the pattern of results is consistent with a "cry for help' by an individual in considerable distress." Both psychologists found the test results valid.

After three lengthy examinations, Rabun concluded that Vince was suffering from schizophrenia, was competent to stand trial and had indeed known the "nature and quality" of his acts on Nov. 26. He'd known, in other words, that the rifle was a rifle, its shots potentially lethal. That left one key question for the trial: Was he sufficiently sane, at the moment he committed the crimes, to know their wrongfulness?

"I just wanted it to end, Dad," Vince told his father. He did not resist when Stan charged him, seized the gun and threw it down the basement steps. Stan said the only words of explanation his son offered -- other than a dazed, "I don't know" -- were "I just wanted it to end, Dad." After the police arrived, Lindsay saw Vince crouched silently, barefoot, in the broken glass, "staring at his hands. They were covered with blood." He still didn't seem to know his mom was dead.

Rabun concluded that Vince was not aware of the wrongfulness of his acts at the moment he committed them. McCullough -- who, after Rabun's 22 points, abandoned all suggestion of malingering -- vehemently challenged this final conclusion. "In his statement to the police, he said he was going to get everybody before they called the cops," McCullough noted. "Was that not an indication that he knew what he was doing was wrong?"

"I have to look at the totality of the act," Rabun replied slowly, explaining that Vince had neither motive nor plan; it was irrational to think he could head off the 911 call placed before he even made it upstairs, and, in fact, he'd told Rabun he thought things would be better after he shot his parents.

"Couldn't Vince Greer have a logical thought that "You know what, I took the truck (he'd borrowed his dad's truck without permission and broken the mirror), I skipped school, I'm going to be in trouble up to my ears, it would be easier'?" McCollough queried.

"Mr. McCullough, you are suggesting he was going to kill his parents because he wrecked a truck!"

"How many people have you heard of who will kill people for 30 cents in their pocket?"

And so the testimony went, with each side battling for its own definition of sanity, normal adolescent behavior and justice. Vince Greer watched, expressionless. The illustrator who'd captured his likeness was long gone.

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