BUFFALO, N.Y. -- From investigations into Lee Harvey Oswald's
troubled adolescence to courtroom debates over Mike Tyson's violent
tantrums, the 20 most psychologically intriguing legal cases of the
past 50 years are chronicled in a new book coauthored by a
University at Buffalo law professor and a clinical psychologist who
is a graduate of the UB Law School.
In "Minds on Trial: Great Cases in Law and Psychology" (Oxford
University Press, 2006) UB law professor Charles Patrick Ewing,
J.D., Ph.D., and Joseph T. McCann, Psy.D., J.D., examine the
sometimes bizarre and often intriguing workings of the human mind,
as exposed by the legal system and by the psychologists who worked
on the cases. And they document examples of how the practice of
psychology, and the use of psychologists as expert witnesses, can
aid the search for truth or can be misused, sometimes with
Both Ewing and McCann are renowned forensic psychologists who
have consulted on hundreds of criminal cases involving what they
describe as "some of life's most fascinating and tragic figures,"
though neither Ewing nor McCann was involved in the cases described
in the book.
The 20 cases selected for the book include in-depth descriptions
of famous trials involving high-profile participants, such as
Jeffrey Dahmer, Patty Hearst, John Hinckley, Woody Allen and
heavy-metal rockers Judas Priest. Other cases offer glimpses into
the minds of lesser known, but very intriguing, principals, such as
George Metesky, a.k.a. the "Mad Bomber;" sexual abuser Cameron
Hooker; Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five
children, and alleged Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk.
Some cases -- like the one involving a dead naval officer
accused of causing the accidental deaths of 46 fellow sailors on
the USS Iowa -- show the limitations of psychology in the search
for the truth and highlight conflicts that sometimes arise between
psychology and the legal system.
"The book shows the vital role psychology plays in so many
aspects of the American system of justice," Ewing says. "So many
cases hinge not on what a person did, but on why they behaved the
way they did, and that's a question psychology can help answer.
"These 20 cases address the most profound psychological
questions posed by the legal system," he adds, "and often the
answers are very far from clear cut."
Says McCann, a 1994 graduate of the UB Law School, "the book
also documents how the use of psychology has changed over the
years, from its use for more common issues like insanity and
competency, to a broad range of issues, like the reliability of
eye-witness testimony, the basis of memory and how it affects
testimony and the nature of family relationships in child-custody
The 20 cases were selected, the authors say, because they deal
with extraordinary circumstances that defy human understanding,
involve fascinating psychological issues that go to the heart of
the search for truth or show how mental-health issues are central
to the process of distributing justice fairly.
Below are brief descriptions of the 20 cases chronicled in the
* George Metesky, Profiling the "Mad Bomber" -- For 16 years
Metesky planted homemade bombs around New York City and boasted of
his crimes to the newspapers. Pursuit of Metesky and his capture in
1957 gave birth to criminal profiling, the authors say.
* Lee Harvey Oswald, The Formative Years of an Assassin -- From
this fascinating account of an adolescent Oswald's psychiatric
examinations, the authors question whether psychological
intervention could have stopped Oswald from assassinating President
* Patricia Hearst, Uncommon Victim or Common Criminal? -- This
famous trial brought the word "brainwash" and attorney F. Lee
Bailey into the public consciousness; it provides an interesting
look at dueling expert witnesses who attempted to discern Hearst's
state of mind.
* The Guilford Four, "You Did It, So Why Not Confess?" -- This
extreme example of coerced confessions in the case of a 1974 IRA
bombing in Guilford, England, points out that confessions may be
unreliable as evidence, though juries are led to believe
* Prosenjit Poddar and Tatiana Tarasoff, Where the Public Peril
Begins -- This seemingly unremarkable case of unrequited love and
murder spurred major changes in the law governing patient privacy
and the responsibility of therapists to report potential
* Dan White, The Myth of the Twinkie Defense -- Popular lore
says White got away with murder because psychologists convinced a
jury that his irrational behavior was caused by junk food, but the
authors say Twinkies had little to do with the jury's decision.
* Cameron Hooker, Judging the Experts -- This bizarre case
involving a sexual abuser and his strangely passive captive of
seven years illustrates the power of mind control and coercion, and
brings into question the credibility of "battling" expert
* John Hinckley, Jr., Shooting for the Stars -- Was President
Reagan's would-be assassin mentally ill or just a narcissistic bum?
This case is famous for Hinckley's bizarre obsession with actress
Jodie Foster, the number of expert witnesses who assessed his
sanity and its role in toughening legal standards for insanity.
* Judas Priest, A Message in the Music -- Did subliminal
messages drive two fans to suicide? This case refocused debate over
how media influence people's behavior and chilled other civil cases
claiming subliminal influence.
* John Demjanjuk, Is He "Ivan the Terrible?" -- This case
involving the identity of an alleged Nazi war criminal living in
the U.S. questioned the reliability of eyewitness testimony and
examines the psychological factors that influence memory and
* The USS Iowa, Equivocating on Death -- This case involving a
naval officer who died with 46 fellow sailors in a suspicious
explosion was among the first cases to use a psychological autopsy
-- or equivocal death analysis -- to try to discern the motives of
* Jeffrey Dahmer, Serial Murder, Necrophilia and Cannibalism --
How could a jury judge one of history's most bizarre serial killers
to be sane? The authors uncover whether Dahmer's childhood held
clues for his inhumane behavior later in life.
* Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, A Swing of King Solomon's Sword --
This very public child custody and alleged child-abuse case --
complicated by Allen's relationship with his 22-year-old adopted
stepdaughter -- shows why child custody cases are among the most
difficult faced by forensic psychologists.
* Gary and Holly Ramona, Recovered Memories or False
Allegations? -- This civil trial of a father accused of sexual
abuse by his daughter cast doubt on the validity of "recovered
memories," which were central to the daughter's accusations.
* Colin Ferguson, A Fool for a Client? -- Though obviously
mentally ill, the perpetrator of the 1993 Long Island Railroad
massacre adequately represented himself in a trial that found him
guilty of several counts of murder.
* Ralph Tortorici, A Question of Competence -- In 1996 a
mentally disturbed university student took 35 fellow students
hostage, injuring two. Judged competent to stand trial and
convicted of all charges, Tortorici committed suicide in prison,
reopening debate over his mental competence.
* Mike Tyson, Predicting the Violence of a Professional Fighter
-- This evaluation of Tyson's psychiatric status, ordered after he
bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear, determined whether
Tyson was too dangerous to be allowed in a boxing ring.
* Daryl Atkins, Mental Retardation, Decency and the Death
Penalty -- This 1996 case involving a mentally retarded man found
guilty of robbery and murder prompted a Supreme Court ruling that
barred sentencing the mentally retarded to death.
* Andrea Yates, An American Tragedy -- This tragic case outraged
and horrified the public, but the authors say killer Andrea Yates
may not have been treated fairly in the trial that found her guilty
of murdering her five children.
* Michael Kantaras, What Makes a Man a Man? -- In this strange
divorce and child-custody case, the court sided with psychological
evidence showing that a person born a woman was now a man, and
awarded him primary custody of an adopted child and a child
conceived through artificial insemination.