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FRONTLINE
A CASE OF INSANITY

dthalmann

James Thalmann, one of the psychologists who evaluated Tortorici to determine if he was legally responsible for his actions when he took the students hostage, testified for the defense. "My opinion was that Ralph Tortorici lacked capacity to understand the nature of what he was doing, its true consequences, or its wrongfulness," Thalmann testified. In the following trial excerpts, Thalmann answers questions posed by defense attorney Peter Lynch. (Editor's note: These excerpts from the court transcript have been slightly edited.)

... [D]id he discuss with you at all the function of the chip, how it worked?

Yes. He had a very deeply ingrained and fixed delusional system that there was a chip that was planted in his penis, and at other times he felt that it has been in his brain, and that this chip emits signals. And basically what he's describing are the first range symptoms of paranoid schizophrenic, which are delusions of thought broadcasting and thought insertion. This is the content of it. He has a fixed delusion that's part of a grand experiment, and he's held this delusion for a great many years.

You used the phrase deeply ingrained fixed delusional system.

Correct.

What does deeply ingrained mean?

It means that it permeates his entire thought process, it's part of his identity and existence. Everything that comes into his awareness ultimately queues up associations about this plot and this chip that has been implanted, and it interferes with his capacity to function and relate to others. There's a gradual downward drift that you see in Ralph as his illness has developed.

What did you mean by the word fixed?

Well, delusion by definition is a belief which is not in keeping with reality and which does not respond to evidence to the contrary. It is impervious, it's water off a duck's back to say or to try to explain this is an impossibility. And it's patently absurd and bizarre, and yet it is still maintained.

When Ralph was, during this second interview, telling you about this computer chip and you had the ability to observe his demeanor, at that time were you able to form an opinion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to whether or not Ralph was a malingerer, as you pointed out earlier?

Yes, I had a good deal of confidence in my opinion; and that was that he was not malingering.

He believed what he was saying to be true; did he not?

He believed it firmly. And there's long term evidence of its existence, dating back in records that I have seen to 1982, when it was in existence to the point it altered his behavior.

Doctor, I assume that there came a time when this second interview came to an end?

Correct. ...

What significance, if any, did you place on the fact that on that third occasion in July of 1995 he did not appear to be acutely psychotic during the course of your evaluation?

Well, the significance was that he continued to maintain delusional beliefs, it just happens to be at a time-- this is a disorder where there are exacerbations, it waxes and wanes, it gets less, it gets more. At that particular time it wasn't thoroughly preoccupying his mind.

And during any of the interviews that you met with Ralph did you ever talk to Ralph specifically about what he did on December 14th, 1994, concerning the SUNY hostage incident, if you will?

Yes.

What did he tell you about that?

He indicated that he was feeling a great deal of resentment, confusion, turmoil; he felt desperate, he had been through a long series of attempts to try and rid himself of this chip, which he firmly believe was implanted in his penis or brain at various times, he felt that he was a pawn in an experiment and he desperately wanted it to be over. He was experiencing auditory hallucinations that were repugnant to him, he heard voices telling him sexual messages to do certain things that were greatly against his value system and his beliefs. One of the things that occurs with command hallucinations, they generally are directives to commit actions which are thoroughly repugnant to the individual. And this is not an individual who-- this does not imply that he has bad morals or bad character. When he heard these auditory hallucinations of sexual nature, such as what he heard in 1992 about molesting a child, they were greatly disturbing and he felt desperate to get this chip taken out of him and felt that he had to do something desperate.

Did he tell you what he actually did that day?

Yes. He said that he went to the University, he told me what his intent was in going there, was to not harm anyone, but to get this chip removed from his brain. And he felt that he had to draw enough attention so that there would be force to, A, acknowledge this indeed was the case and, B, remove it.

Doctor, I would like to direct your attention to Defendant's Exhibit C in evidence, consisting of a Capital District Psychiatric Center record for the period December 18th, 1992, to a portion of that document, page 12, entitled history of present illness, and ask you, sir, do you recall whether or not you reviewed that part of the record in the conduct of your evaluation?

Yes, I did.

What significance, if any, did you place upon that information contained in the record of December 1992?

A great deal of significance.

Why?

This is a parallel of the same thing that he did at SUNY. He was distressed at this particular time to the point that it led him into potentially, potentially dangerous or self-defeating behaviors. He went to a police barracks and told a policeman that he was hearing voices to molest a child, indicated that he wasn't sure if he had, and he wanted the chip taken out of his head. It also shows that this is a chronic condition, which--

What do you mean by the word chronic?

This is the existence of a paranoid schizophrenic's behavior and thought process in 1992, and it's thoroughly consistent with his presentation in 1994. It's not something which just came about. And there has been questions raised about the affects of cocaine use--

THE COURT: Well, the answer was-- the question had to do with chronic, and you answered the question. Try to focus in, Doctor, just on the question. There will be further questions, if necessary, by counsel.

MR. LYNCH: Thank you, your Honor. Now, Doctor, what significance, if any, did you place on the fact that back on December 18th, 1992, Ralph Tortorici went to the Guilderland Police Barracks, advised the officer of these voices telling him to commit sexual acts on a seven-year-old child, and requesting that the computer chip be removed? ...

THALMANN (CONT.): That was an important aspect to look at because this is an individual that in some aspects had appreciation of the nature of what he was doing and its wrongfulness, and in other aspects didn't understand the possible consequences of his behavior.

What do you mean by that?

Well, he heard command hallucinations to molest the child and he could discriminate that was wrong.

Why?

Because that's not part of his delusional system.

What do you mean?

That's not part of his delusional belief about the chip being in his head, that merely is a symptom of a schizophrenia for which he had the capacity to understand that doing that would have been wrong. And he struggled against that. On the other hand, his behavior was lost, insofar as he went to a police officer, telling him something that potentially could have been very incriminating. He was very confused at that time. He went to a police officer, acted out on the basis of the delusion to say that he thought he may have molested a child, he was hearing voices to do so, and he couldn't refrain because he didn't understand the true nature of what he was doing in asking for the chip to be taken out. He thoroughly believed that as his reality. So it's an indication of elements of his behavior which he is very goal direct about and under which he has control, and that which is relevant to his delusional system for which he lacks an understanding about the nature of what he's doing or its potential consequences. ...

Thank you. Doctor, I would like to, if I may, ask you a hypothetical question. I would like to assume that in November, 1994, Ralph Tortorici went to K-Marts and purchased this rifle. I would like you to assume that he also purchased bullets-- these bullets-- in conjunction with the rifle. I would like you to assume that he engaged in target practice, shooting two holes through this pan. I would like you to assume, Doctor, that Ralph Tortorici acquired this knife. I would like you to assume further, Doctor, that on December 14th, 1994, Ralph Tortorici operated an automobile or truck to the SUNY campus in Albany. I would like you to assume, Doctor, that Ralph Tortorici was able to bring this rifle, these bullets and that knife undetected into lecture center number 5 at the SUNY campus. I would like you to assume, Doctor, that that morning between the hours of nine a.m. and 11:15 a.m. or so Ralph Tortorici instructed students to take this fire hose and tie up the door handles. I would like you to assume that Ralph Tortorici also directed students to barricade doors utilizing chairs and their physical persons. I would like you to assume also that Ralph Tortorici directed the professor and several students to contact SUNY officials, the media, president of the United States, Congress, Governor Cuomo. I would like you to assume that during the course of that two, two-and-a-half hour period Ralph Tortorici engaged in giving orders directing the students to move from place to place to place within the classroom, keeping himself at a distance.

Given those assumptions, Doctor, and based upon your review of this case, are you able to form an opinion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to whether or not during that occurrence, as a result of a mental disease or defect, Ralph Tortorici lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either, one, the nature and consequences of such conduct, or, two, that such conduct was wrong?

MS. COLEMAN: Your Honor, I'm sorry. I have to object to the part of the hypothetical that deals with medical certainty, as Dr. Thalmann is not a medical Doctor, but a psychologist. Other than that, I have no objection to the question.

THE COURT: The objection is overruled at the risk of having that question be repeated. And you may give an answer.

THALMANN: Yes, I have an opinion.

LYNCH (CONT.): What is your opinion?

My opinion was that Ralph Tortorici lacked capacity to understand the nature of what he was doing, its true consequences, or its wrongfulness.

And what is the basis for your opinion, Doctor?

Well, Ralph Tortorici is not with mental defect. He does not have retardation. He has a mental illness. It is well documented. In any of the most severe forms of mental illness one never loses the capacity of the direction of ones behavior. He's capable, he's a bright individual, to have highly complicated behaviors that are very goal directed. As a parallel to the 1992 incident, some things he knows are wrong and he'll not do; other things, which are a part of his delusional system, for which he is out of touch with reality because he's thoroughly psychotic at the time, thoroughly confused and desperate. He performs those actions, which are a part of that system without a realization of the nature of what he's doing. He has the belief that he's going to have a computer chip removed from his penis or his brain, and that this is the only way that he is capable to do that. And in that context and in that perspective, in his shoes that behavior would not be considered morally wrong to him; although he is aware of the fact that others may stop him from doing this and why, because they are likely part of the whole conspiracy and part of the experiment itself. ...

In conjunction with your evaluation, were you able to form an opinion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to the diagnosis of Ralph Tortorici's mental condition?

Yes.

What is your diagnosis?

Schizophrenia, paranoid type, chronic.

Were you able to form with a reasonable degree of medical certainty the prognosis for that condition?

Yes.

What is your prognosis?

Guarded to poor

What does that mean?

That means that he is unlikely to become symptom free, he's unlikely to be able to rid himself of this delusional belief; he's resistant to medication, he lacks insight. Even if he took medication, he may still not remit from the symptoms.

During those occasions when you saw Ralph at the Albany County jail in June and July of 1995, to your knowledge was he cocaine free at that time?

Yes, he was.

Did he display any symptoms of being on cocaine?

No.

Yet you testified earlier that he did display correct?

That's correct.

What significance, if any, do you place on the fact that June and July of 1995 in your presence and in the absence of cocaine Ralph Tortorici displayed evidence of delusions?

The significance is that what I saw there were the residual ongoing thought disorder of a paranoid schizophrenic in the absence of cocaine ingestion. Indeed, he has had exacerbations in settings where he has not had the availability of cocaine. In other words, he becomes markedly psychotic, and it is clear that this is not related to any cocaine ingestion.

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