David Attias’ mental state once again dominated testimony from defense witnesses on Thursday, with clinical psychologist Karen Bronk Froming taking the stand to testify about the defendant’s neurological deficiencies.
Froming said after her evaluation of Attias, she concluded that the 20-year-old suffers from brain damage in the frontal lobe, which has the tendency to exacerbate psychiatric disorders. She, like other doctors who have testified, was hesitant about labeling Attias’ mental illness, but said she saw symptoms associated with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, obsessive compulsive behavior and atypical bipolar disorder.
Froming also said the defendant is now on three different medications to control his psychosis, including an anti-psychotic.
Attias, a former UCSB student, is on trial for the Feb. 23, 2001 collision on Sabado Tarde Road that killed Nicholas Bourdakis, Christopher Divis, Elie Israel and Ruth Levy, and seriously injured Levy’s brother, Albert. Attias pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the nine felony counts against him, including four counts of second-degree murder.
Jack Earley and Nancy Haydt , Attias’ counsel, expect to finish defense testimony for the guilt phase by next Wednesday. On Tuesday, Attias’ father will take that stand, followed by four more witnesses, including a former neighbor of the defendant.
If Attias is convicted, the trial will then move to an insanity phase, where the jury will decide whether he was insane when the collision took place.
Froming – who was paid $200 an hour by the defense for her evaluation and testimony – said she met with the defendant three times, on April 17 and 18 of 2001, and on Jan. 23 of this year.
The psychologist said Attias was in a manic state during her first two interviews and would talk nonstop while she performed her evaluative tests.
“He was very agitated and impulsive. He had very impaired judgement, he really said inappropriate things to me … he had very little insight into his own behavior. He was ‘functioning better than ever and was probably smarter than anyone else in the world’ – that’s a direct quote,” she said. “In general, the most striking observation was his inattention and distractibility and extremely poor and pretty impaired motor performance … What I was seeing there was unmedicated flagrant psychiatric disorder.”
Attias was delusional at the time of her first two interviews, Froming said, defining delusional as a “false belief in the head despite all the evidence to the contrary.” She said he thought that psychiatrists and psychologists were out to get him and would become excited and then angered easily and quickly.
“You have someone who is perseverative … so once the false belief is there, it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge it,” she said.
Attias’ “grandiose” and “narcissistic” feelings were also indicative of his psychosis, Froming said.
“This is first thing in the morning, and David starts right away on a riff that’s pretty much unstoppable,” she said. “[He said] ‘I know I’m the smartest person in the world and it’s wrong to have a client that’s smarter than his lawyer.'”
Froming said she believes the defendant suffers not only from mental illness, but also has frontal lobe damage and possibly cerebella damage.
“[Neurological damage] exacerbates mental illness,” she said. “If you have someone who has significant impairment in his neurological makeup, and add on top of that his major psychiatric disorder in which there is uncontrolled behavior and manic behavior … these kind of delusional symptoms are unrestrained because the frontal lobes aren’t working properly.”
Deputy district attorney Patrick McKinley asked Froming if she was surprised that Attias’ reaction to her testimony was the same as “the gorier parts of the case … mainly boredom or disinterest.”
“I see someone who’s heavily medicated. I think he’s probably not paying attention because there’s heavy sedative effects of the three medications he’s on,” she said.
The prosecutor also said that “nobody has described, from the time he was born,” Attias’ psychosis as being as exacerbated as it was around the time of Froming’s April 2001 interviews. He said jail personnel reported in early April that the defendant urinated in his cell, made derogatory comments to the correctional officers, took his clothing off and jumped around yelling at the ceiling, among other things.
“None of this was going on at F.T., was it?” McKinley said.
“It had not gotten to that level yet,” Froming said. “You’re describing psychotic behavior. They described him as acting very oddly and bizarre … but he was not as acutely psychotic as he became. That’s not unusual with psychosis.”
The trial will continue on Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. in Dept. 2 of the Santa Barbara County Superior Courthouse.