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

Jan 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

"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."

That's not how forensic commitment works. But the defense was barred from explaining its multiple safeguards to the jury.

By Missouri law, a defendant pleading mental illness must have been incapable of knowing and appreciating the nature, quality and wrongfulness of his actions at the moment of the crime. It's called the M'Naughten standard, and it dates back to the days when schizophrenia was thought to be the devil's work. The notion of knowing "wrongfulness" came from an 1843 case in Great Britain, and "nature and quality" hark back to the "wild-beast test" forged in 1724, when a judge said a jury could find someone insane only if he did not have even the understanding of a wild beast or a child.

"It's a very high threshold," notes Rabun. "You have to be a raving lunatic. Prosecutors key in on that: They say, "Did he know the gun was a gun? Did he think he was killing a person or an alien?' But there is no such thing as total insanity. The raving lunatic that runs down the street is just a caricature."

As Hawk points out, "It's not uncommon for even very psychotic people to be able to verbalize some understanding of appropriate behavior, or a legal standard. The problem is their capacity to integrate that." When untreated schizophrenia triggers violence, it's because what's deteriorating is the circuitry between the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain -- the very circuitry that allows us to control the connections between our thoughts and our behavior instead of acting out every impulse.

Missouri law used to make room for biological brain diseases by including a third, "volitional" prong. Moving beyond the shallow cognitive awareness of right and wrong that's often still in existence during active psychosis, the third prong asked whether someone was so propelled or driven (by mania or command hallucinations) that he was unable to stop himself.

That section was repealed in 1993.

It could be worse: Four states have eradicated the insanity defense altogether. As a society, we've come full circle, returning to the days when our jails were also our asylums. "The Los Angeles County Jail is now the largest inpatient psychiatric facility in that area," notes Rabun. "We're warehousing the mentally ill in prisons, and they don't do well there. They are used and abused by calculating individuals who should be punished."

If Vince was indeed psychotic at the moment of his crimes, punishment has little to teach him. If he killed, as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch claimed, "for a completely stupid adolescent reason: I'm grounded, I ran away, I've been skipping school, it's all over" -- then he will be punished for that muddled thinking for the rest of his life in a climate of rape, bigotry, fights, frustration and despair.

It doesn't leave him much incentive to strive for sanity.

"We are a nation of laws, and as a lawyer, I don't ever want to criticize a jury's verdict," says John Hullverson, co-counsel for the defense. "But if you were to ask me whether I think those jurors understand what will now become of Vince, I would have to say no."

They heard detailed accounts of his downward spiral the year before the shootings.

Imagine the downward spiral they have just set in motion.