Diana Attias, the mother of David Attias, testified in court on Tuesday that the ordeal of raising her son, whom she characterized as “sickly” and “inconsolable,” wore on her patience and tested her skill as a mother.
Attias, a former UCSB student, is on trial for second degree murder, manslaughter and gross negligence resulting in great bodily injury for the Feb. 23, 2001 Sabado Tarde Road collision that killed four people and seriously injured a fifth. The defendant, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. His defense team, Jack Earley and Nancy Haydt, began their arguments Tuesday. Most of the testimony from the witnesses that they call will focus on the defendant’s mental state.
Mrs. Attias, the fourth witness the defense has called, answered questions about Attias’ childhood and adolescence. Her husband, Daniel Attias, is expected to testify today.
“He was an unsettled kind of baby,” she said. “He cried frequently. He was rather hard to soothe. It was frustrating for me.”
Mrs. Attias also said that David seemed developmentally stunted.
“He never really learned to crawl properly. He just rolled,” she said. “As a toddler, he learned to walk months later than other kids. And when he talked, only Daniel and I could really understand him.”
According to Mrs. Attias’ testimony, the bizarre behavior her son exhibited at UCSB prior to the collision was nothing new. She said her son was socially inept, physically awkward and prone to unusual mannerisms even in his elementary school years, but that he was also a bright and loving child.
“It never got easier … He would bite himself. Sometimes he would arch his back and stiffen his body suddenly. He didn’t seem to connect with the other kids [in nursery school],” she said. “There was awkwardness to his walking. I remember him walking in a jogathon with his arms out. He was trying really hard, but it was just an unnatural body position.”
Mrs. Attias said her son’s estrangement from his peers was increased during his adolescence by new and odd behaviors, including mood swings, giddiness and compulsive list-making.
“We kept all the lists he made. He made a lot of lists,” she said. “The intensity of his passion would shift from one thing to another … from cars to sports to quail to music to comic books … [With our cats] he was very loving … he had a fixation with them like he did with other things.”
However, Mrs. Attias said her son did not realize the connection between his actions and the alienation from his peers.
“He essentially didn’t understand his effect on people. He wanted to have friends like anyone else, but he didn’t understand he was putting people off,” she said.
Mrs. Attias said she often attributed her son’s shortcomings to her failure as a mother.
“I guess I just thought I was doing something wrong,” she said. “I felt like I was a match for my daughter, but not for David. And I think he felt a lot of frustration. He knew things weren’t coming as easily to him as they should be. It was pretty stressful for all of us. I got to a point [at which] I was overwhelmed and then Daniel took over.”
Mrs. Attias testified that her son’s hospitalization at UCLA when he was 13, prompted by his alleged choking of his sister, was a relief.
“I didn’t want him to come home. I didn’t think it was good for him or us,” she said. “But he came home and went the next two years at a regular high school. He did very well. He got good grades. He graduated. He was accepted at a number of schools. He held three different jobs.”
Despite warning signs that her son’s grasp of normality was loosening at UCSB, Mrs. Attias said she and her husband urged him to stay enrolled.
“At Thanksgiving, I talked to Daniel about it. I knew David was wanting to come home, but David was told to complete school where he was,” she said. “I was never afraid David would hurt other people. I thought if anyone, he would hurt himself. I thought it was a momentary blip and he would get back on track.”
Prosecutor Patrick McKinley asked Mrs. Attias why she had never warned her son’s roommates about his fragile condition. Mrs. Attias said that she thought it would have made making friends more difficult.
McKinley also questioned Mrs. Attias about David’s mental records and drug use. Mrs. Attias said she couldn’t recall details of events – some of which happened over 10 years ago – such as therapy sessions and specific altercations with her son.
“If it’s in the records, it’s in the records – it was a difficult time,” she said.
Earley then questioned Mrs. Attias again.
“I take it there were wonderful parts about David?” he said.
“Many,” she said.