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interview: dr. charles mutter

He is a forensic psychologist who was retained jointly by the district attorney and defense in the Fuster case to examine Ileana Fuster while she was in prison awaiting trial. He tells FRONTLINE that his assessment of her was that "she looked like a very frightened individual, who seemed to have the thinking of a much younger individual, more infantile." Dr. Mutter agreed to share his impressions after watching a videotape of Ileana's interview with FRONTLINE. He said that if Ileana was given "guided imagery, and then given other suggestions about things happening, that could have impressed her memory in some way where she could believe that certain things that were suggested did in fact happen." This interview was conducted in January 2002.

... What was your involvement in the case?

... In this case, both the defense counselor, Mr. Von Zamft and Mr. Hogan, who was the assistant [district] attorney, retained me jointly to examine this young lady, Ileana Fuster, to determine a number of things. One was her capacity to assist counsel, because there may have been a pleading. Also, whether or not they could be tried jointly or whether the trials should be separated. ...

You met Ileana probably six times. Describe the first time you met her.

She was an 18-year-old from Honduras, but she looked like a very frightened individual, who seemed to have the thinking of a much younger individual, more infantile. She seemed to be very suggestible, susceptible, and very frightened of her husband.

What were some of the signs? How could you tell this?

Her psychomotor activity was increased. She was extremely nervous when she spoke to me. At times, she was very guarded and evasive, didn't know how to answer even simple types of questions, and appeared to me much younger, at least in her age, than her given age of 18, at the time when I saw her.

When you first met her did you talk about the case?

Briefly, yes. I asked her simple questions, such as I asked her who her attorney was. She knew that. I asked what his role was and what a prosecutor's role is, and a judge and jury. These are general questions that a forensic expert will ask to determine the person's capacity to assist counsel.

As I started getting further history about her involvement with her husband -- how she met him, what happened to her, why she had to marry him, her cultural background -- it became very clear to me that she was very greatly influenced by him, and I think that, in many ways, she was very protective of him. She was in a double bind: "If I tell the truth, then I may be abandoned. If I protect him, then maybe I will be saved in some way."

But end up in prison for life.

She might, yes. I don't know that she really fully understood, initially, what her testimony would ensue. I believe initially when this trial began, or the case began, they were going to try them together. After seeing her for five or six times, and getting more history and doing my evaluation, it was my opinion that I believed that she was going to try and plead out, and I believe that the state attorney was trying to use her as a witness against her husband, to give testimony. And she was extremely fearful of this.

Why?

Because she felt that if she testified against him, that she would be abandoned. She was a young girl who was recently married, and had great fear of him. She also believed, or indicated, that he abused her and mistreated her.

But the other side of it, what was her thinking about not testifying? Did she have a fear, at that point, of what would happen to her if she didn't testify?

I think that she was made aware, by either her defense counsel or someone, that if she didn't speak in her own behalf or protect herself, that she could spend many, many years in prison.

When she was speaking to you, though, did she maintain her innocence? Did she talk like she was guilty? What was her stance at that point?

People don't usually talk like they're guilty, when you examine, unless they feel so guilty that they just say, " I did it," and that's it. And normally, they don't need a psychiatrist to evaluate that situation. I would say she was just very frightened, somewhat guarded in her responses, and in some things claimed that she didn't remember clearly all the things that were alleged against her by the children.

I think she tried to say things that would make her look favorable [to] people who were above her. But I don't know if anybody will ever know the exact truth of this.

I did not know of her involvement with other therapists. I later discovered that when she was seen by therapists who were retained by Mr. Von Zamft, that she was told certain things, such as, "The children said you did this: a, b, c and d." She claimed that she didn't remember doing any such things, and that this was reinforced to her verbally, over and over again, and she was told that she may have dreams about this.

And later on, she started developing dreams about it, and then believed that, "If I dreamt it, this must be true." This may be what influenced her to give testimony against her husband. ...

[When you first met Ileana], it was at a point where she was still maintaining her innocence.

Yes. She claimed that she didn't do anything to the children.

What was she claiming at that point about her husband and the crimes?

At this point, she did not know whether he did it or not. At least that's what she said, which leads us to a number of possibilities: that maybe [he] did it and she was lying to protect him, or maybe he did certain things that he wasn't supposed to do and she didn't "visualize" it. ...

Did you find Ileana to have any memory disturbance or amnesia?

Normally when a psychiatrist examines a patient they test for memory retention, recall. I may ask her to recall four or five numbers forwards and backwards. She could do all those things. So there was no organic component, as to a memory defect or deficit. I didn't think she had what we call a dissociative state, which means there's people who are under great deal of stress and they suddenly develop a period of amnesia.

She really knew basically what was going on and what was happening to her. I think she was just very frightened to respond to certain things. ...

After seeing her and analyzing the situation, would you have advised the defense to have gone on the route that they did, to hire someone on to try to bring back repressed memories?

I think there are people who are in prison settings where they need psychotherapy to help them get through their problems. She was very frightened, she was very anxious, she was depressed. And those are indications for psychiatric care.

But if you're saying, will we put pressure on her to remember things by either pushing her for memory or pressing her for this unduly? I don't think that's really medically indicated -- or it wasn't in her case.

Do you think that's what happened here?

In retrospect, it appears that way. That's what she stated.

Tell us a little bit about how she fits sort of the profile of battered wife and what this said about Frank. How did she appear to you on that side of things?

When she spoke of her husband, she appeared a bit more withdrawn, a little frightened and hesitant to choose her words properly. She didn't want to say anything that was very negative against him because this was her husband. And I think that she spoke of him in a protective way, but also very frightened. She was very easily intimidated by him, from what I gather. A lot of this dealt with her cultural background.

What were the signs, though, that she showed of being a battered wife?

There aren't any clear-cut signs, other than physical bruises; I didn't see any of that. But the way she spoke about him, her verbalizations about him were very guarded and hesitant, and I figured she was holding back certain things that she just chose not to reveal to me. ...

Do you think it was her personality that was compliant to almost any older male authority figure? Did that seem to be the case?

More or less, yes.

Explain.

She's a young lady who wants to be liked and admired by other people, and she'll become more compliant or going along with certain things that she might not normally go along with. She was not rebellious.

How far would that go?

It went as far as getting herself into a situation where she had to get married.

Tell us that story.

She told me that she met Frank through his son, and there was an issue where he did not have a wife, and they lived alone. The boy wanted her to take him to the park. And she was willing to do that. At one point, Frank took her to his home, and sexually assaulted her. Now, you have to realize that she was raised in a very strict type of upbringing that you must be a virgin when you get married, and, if you have a physical relationship with somebody before that, you belong to that individual, or you'll be cast out; you'd be castigated. ...

With the result that she married a man who basically raped her?

Yes, that's correct. At least, that's what she said. ...

What was the treatment in prison that Ileana's stating, and how would that affect her?

I recall in her videotape she made statements that the therapists who were working with her went over and over again with the statements that the children said that happened. She claimed she didn't remember any of this, but they said, "You'll dream about it, it's going to come to you, your memory will have to be refreshed," and that this was given to her repeatedly, over a prolonged and intensive period of time.

So I think that anybody who's that impressionable might say, "If everybody says this happened, I guess it must have happened," even though she may not have consciously recalled that, which is one possibility.

The second possibility was that she did recall it and she didn't want to admit to it. And the third was that things may have happened that she was not made privy to, so she would not really know whether it really happened or not, other than being told that, "This is what the kid said happened, and therefore it must be true," and "Why aren't you remembering this and why aren't you cooperating with us?" That can impress an individual to appear to [have] a confabulated memory, false memory.

How would the pressures of the situation she was in prison have added to that or helped that situation come about?

Being in prison doesn't help anybody; it's an intimidating situation for anyone who's a prisoner.

And for her, especially so?

She's a frightened little girl. Of course. Maybe worse. I don't know that being in prison in and of itself is going to have that much great influence on her alleged recall or not recall of memory, but it certainly had an impact. It would frighten anyone. ...

Explain for us what is a false memory?

A false memory is an incorrect perception of an event or series of events that never occurred.

How is it possible that someone can develop a false memory?

I can tell you that by giving you an example. Sometimes, a well-meaning therapist may see an individual who comes in for consultation and they have a very poor image or self-concept. And the therapist says, "Something terrible must have happened to you when you were much younger. I wonder what that is." Most patients trust their therapists, and, "If this is my doc who say something terrible must have happened, I don't remember anything, but that means I must come up with something."

If this is done repeatedly, then say, maybe we'll even hypnotize you and see if we can bring back something that you just don't recall. Many times when this is done, a person may come up with issues such as child abuse or events that they may have remembered before, but they are confabulating or bringing up something that will please their therapist or that they think may make sense as to why they have this poor self-esteem.

Was Ileana especially susceptible to that?

I think she was highly susceptible to, and very impressionable about false memories, yes.

What happens with people who are seeded with false memories?

Many of them still believe that it's true forever. Others may, later on, recant. Which means they look back at this and say, "I don't think that really happened. I must have made this up." And then later on they change their story and say, "I guess I said it before, but I must have made it up. I don't know why I said it, but I really don't think it happened that way."

So how unusual is it for Ileana to be coming back now, 17 years after the case, and recanting on what she thought was the truth?

I don't think that's very unusual, if she's truly recanting. I know that during the course of this pretrial phase she was interviewed by, I think, Janet Reno, who was the state attorney here at this time, and her own attorney, of course, who was there representing her. And I'm sure that many times she was told, "We've got testimony saying the kid said this is what you and Frank did." And she said, "I don't remember this." "You've got to remember something about this, and you have to come up with something, because we've got to make it clear before the court."

And also that she would have to be able to -- and this may induce a false memory -- where she said, "If I dream about this or the kids say this, maybe it's true and I just didn't remember doing it." And this may have impressed her significantly where she would make statements that may not be false. Or they could be true. There's no way you can separate truth from a falsification through hypnosis or any kinds of means.

Although is not always accepted in courts, the polygraph is one means that may be utilized. And I know a bit about that because she was given a polygraph, about her own involvement with the children, and the polygraph did not show deception. When she was asked about Frank's involvement, it did show deception.

And so they tried to do this in many different ways, to see if they could filter out why these responses appeared as they did. But this is where they came with the idea that she's protecting him, which would be consistent with her dynamics that I previously described.

Can you explain what guided visualization is?

Guided imagery, or visualization, is a hypnotic technique where you get a person to close your eyes, let themself relax, and you have them visualize themselves in a very peaceful secure place. You couple with that suggestions, and the more and more you get into that image the more deeply relaxed you become. It's a hypnotic induction technique.

"Hypnotic?"

Yes. It's used in hypnosis quite frequently, as an induction to get people to go into hypnosis.

The way Ileana describes what took place in her situation -- does that sound like hypnosis?

It sounds like it was attempted, that's all I can say about that. I'd have to have a videotape or an audio tape to see what was happening in fact, which I don't have.

What do you mean, that "It sounds like it was attempted?"

If she was given that kind of imagery or guided imagery, and then given other suggestions about things happening, that could have impressed her memory in some way where she could believe that certain things that were suggested did in fact happen. So that is a possibility.

So how would that have affected her testimony? Would that taint her testimony?

Yes. Because if she says, "Yes, now I remember Frank did all these, and I was a victim," and she passed the polygraph for being victimized, that she was just not a party of this, but she was there, as another victim. And that certainly would have a mitigating factor. In other words, it would help her in her own defense; it would lighten her sentence.

Explain though what the therapist was trying to do, when he was using guided visualization with her.

That's like second guessing. But I think that the therapists were trying to get her to be more cooperative and come up with memories, so they can identify really what her role was with this -- or what her role wasn't -- and possibly what the role Frank had in this overall situation. I think that they may have been very well-meaning when they were attempting to do this, but they could also induce false memories with it.

Does it seem, from what she states, that that's indeed what took place?

I think that is one of the possibilities that one must consider.

She says that the stories were rehearsed over and over again. She states, specifically, "They told me exactly what to say." If this is the case, how does that affect her testimony? How would one have to judge her testimony?

That's called undue influence.

What is?

Rehearsing somebody, saying, "This is what you have to say." It may be the truth, or it could be a lie; there's no way one can tell just from that alone.

If this did take place, the rehearsal, what would that mean about her testimony?

It means that it could be coerced testimony.

And what are the signs that it was coerced?

There's no clear-cut clinical sign that tells you this, just what the person says. ...

Did you see the videotapes of the children?

I saw two of the videotapes. And the judge, in his wisdom, sealed them.

What's your evaluation of the tactics used to gain the testimony from the children?

I was appalled.

Explain.

I thought that these alleged therapists got these children to say things that they may not have normally said, by suggesting things that you don't do when you're interrogating or trying to get facts.

Be specific. Explain.

If you've got a child who's very impressionable and they play with toys and things, they said, "Did he do this?" And that means that's a suggestion that he did do this. You don't ask that kind of question. "What did he do?" is a better question -- an open, non-leading type of question. And kids like to please therapists, so they may have cooperated in some certain ways where they may have come up with things that may or may not have been true. I don't know.

[It's a] possibility?

But that's a possibility. ...

What's the general opinion, among psychologists and therapists about interviewing young children in situations like this, where you're looking for testimony that might be used in a case?

I can't answer for other people. But when I was trained in forensic areas, you do not lead individuals, because you may be well meaning, but you may coerce people to saying things that may not be true. We can induce false memories with people, even though we may be well meaning in our way to do this. ...

Can one judge Ileana's honesty, by looking at her interview? I mean, either she is someone who has gone through an amazingly horrific situation here, or she is a very good liar.

I think she was a very impressionable lady, way back when, and she tried to say things that would make her look favorable in the light of the people who were above her, in authority of her. So I think that's a strong possibility. But I don't know if anybody will ever know the exact truth of this.

Why?

Because what I saw with the children, it's hard for me to differentiate what is fact and what's fantasy. Let me answer a different way. If a child is in a day care center and he's molested, and it's traumatic to this child, or even unusual, his behavior pattern is going to change when he's at home. If the parents see a change in his behavior pattern, this means that some other kind of events occurred to this child that would make him act in an unusual or a different way. So that could be -- or may not be -- some type of abuse to the child or a mistreatment to the child. That's probably the most telling criteria that you can measure.

But again, these children were seen by alleged therapists where information was, again, elicited; and it's really hard to assess fact from fantasy with that. And here you have a young lady who had some great trauma with this husband, and we don't really know what really happened or what didn't happen. At this point, there's a likelihood that she could have been coerced to saying things that she did not independently recall, or may not have happened, at least in her memory framework. It's very difficult to assess. ...

Basically -- very basically -- can you retrieve repressed memories with the tactics that were being used with Ileana?

Yes. They may be accurate; and they may not be. I've worked with a number of defendants in my clinical practice, I'm able to get information that was not normally elicited by regular recall. ...

How effective would someone's testimony be if they were repeating the false memory? Would they be less effective, or more effective, than if they were telling the truth, or what they believed to be the truth?

If a false memory is implanted in an individual, they truly believe this is their truth; it's their reality. And it's very difficult to be able to cross-examine or get that person to alter that statement. ...

Is dreaming about events very possibly a way to get at the truth? [Could this have happened to Ileana?]

If she believes that, then she's going to accept that, uncritically, as the truth to her. Usually a dream is a symbolic representation of other conflicts in one's life. We have so many things we do in our everyday life, and things we don't handle, we put away in our unconscious vaults. When we sleep at night, the dreams may bring it back. It's like working through things.

But in this situation?

In this situation, she dreams about events of molestation, of things of this nature, and she said, "It's now in my head, it must be true." Sure, that can be a type of coercion, to get a person to believe something that may not have really happened. But in their mind, if it's real to them, it's the truth. ...

She seems -- and a lot of psychologists seem to agree -- in the end, that she could be manipulated in a lot of different ways. How does one figure out, then, when she's telling the truth? I mean, she's given very different versions of what's gone on here. The question becomes, is any testimony --including the testimony which helped the prosecutors put her husband in jail for 165 years -- is any of her testimony to be believed? How can one judge the truth of this situation, as far as what she really, truly believes?

That's the easiest one to answer. How can one tell whether it's truthful or not? With great difficulty. There's no way you can really tell, just by looking at her. She appears to be very convincing in the way she speaks and attempts to impress people in that way. But that's her normal pattern. If she's lying, I can't tell whether she's lying or not based on that. ...

Is it possible to find the truth in this case, at this late date?

I think that anything is possible. I don't know. I think we have to go to extreme measures to find it, then I can answer that better. You have to take all these kids who were allegedly abused as kids and get their stories now, as adults, because they may recant, and see what they have to say. I think that Ileana would have to be re-examined. And I think to do that, that may put you in a better position to make your determination. I think it would be very difficult to get all that, though. ...

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