Finding out if gunman Breivik is mad 'to take months'
Copious ramblings and intricate plans may scupper insanity defence
Published 31/07/2011 | 05:00
Assessing whether Norway's confessed mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is insane, as his lawyer asserts, will take months of observation, interviews and analysis, according to a lecturer in forensic psychiatry.
Breivik's lawyer Geir Lippestad has already said "this whole case indicated that he is insane", but experts point to some key factors that might suggest a different view.
"The insanity defence is about whether someone understands what they're doing, and if they do, whether they realise it is legally wrong," said Seena Fazel, a clinical senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at the University of Oxford.
"If you think when you're attacking somebody that you're actually attacking a piece of bread . . . and if you had no idea what you did was legally wrong . . . then people would consider that as part of an insanity defence," he told a briefing in London.
These elements also play into another key consideration for insanity -- whether the killer had the capacity to form intent.
"A high degree of planning and premeditation, and an ability to see through to the consequences of your actions in a rational way, imply some capacity to form intent," Ms Fazel said.
Mr Breivik's copious writings -- some of which appear in diaries and a 1,500-page "manifesto" in which he wrote of himself as a righteous crusader on a mission to save European "Christendom" from a tide of Islam -- suggest he planned his attacks months in advance, gradually gathering the tools and the expertise he needed.
Fin Larkin, a consultant psychiatrist familiar with making assessments of offenders' minds, said they "have to be pretty patently mentally unwell" to successfully claim insanity.
"It's not impossible . . . but it's actually quite difficult to fake," he said.
Mr Larkin, who works in the personality disorder section of Britain's Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital, which has housed and treated some of its most notorious killers, said psychiatrists making such assessments take as their starting point that everything the defendant says is a lie.
"They've often got strong motivation not to tell the truth, they may be very well researched, they may have planned things for quite a while, they may be good mimics who have spent time with mentally ill people," he said.
Experts say that while there are some common factors that often crop up in the backgrounds of mass killers -- a difficult childhood, a lack of empathy, sadistic behaviour and difficulties forming and maintaining relationships -- these on their own offer few clues for a mental illness diagnosis.
For a proper assessment, offenders should ideally be admitted to a high-security hospital where psychiatrists and other specialists monitor them day and night to observe their reactions to people, situations and the stresses of daily life.
This could and should take several months, Ms Fazel said, and should be combined with a detailed search of the offender's life course -- including interviews with family, old friends, online contacts, analyses of diaries, and going back to school reports and earlier notes from doctors or other professionals.
"It's too early at the moment to say much about this man in terms of diagnosis, but it's very important to read his writings, interview informants, friends and family and get as much objective information as possible."