Disorder defense may be a stretch

Disorder defense may be a stretch

Published Jun. 18, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

The defense in Jerry Sandusky's child sexual abuse trial is suggesting that a personality disorder explains some of the charges against the former Penn State assistant football coach, but one expert says that may be a stretch.

Sandusky's lawyers are arguing that he suffers from histrionic personality disorder. It's defined by the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual as ''a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking'' that is ''often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior'' and rapidly shifting emotions.

According to the National Institutes of Health, histrionic personality disorder occurs more often in women than in men.

One expert, however, questions whether it is a separate personality disorder, or just an aspect of broader personality defects.


''It has been removed'' from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it may be placed in an appendix for further study, said Dr. Renato Alarcon of the Mayo Clinic. He's part of the personality disorders working group that reviews changes to the manual, known as the ''bible'' of mental illness.

Prosecutors say Sandusky sexually abused boys over a period of years. They say he targeted victims at a charity he founded, groomed them for abuse, and then moved from touching and kissing to more severe forms of sexual abuse, including in some cases oral or anal sex. Sandusky has denied all the allegations.

Sandusky's lawyers, who began presenting their defense Monday, plan to raise the disorder issue to suggest that his extensive correspondence with one of the alleged victims wasn't necessarily ''grooming'' boys to molest them but instead might be trying to ''satisfy the needs of a psyche'' with the disorder.

''The jury should not be misled into believing these statements and actions are likely grooming when they are just as likely or more likely histrionic in origin,'' wrote defense attorney Karl Rominger in the June 11 filing.

But Dr. Glen Gabbard, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said histrionic personality disorder could in no way be seen as a reason or explanation for the abuse of children.

''That diagnosis, if he has it, would be completely irrelevant to anything having to do with criminal responsibility for acts of pedophilia,'' said Gabbard, an expert on personality disorders.

The disorder did figure in one controversial New Jersey murder case. Kristina Burris was convicted of killing her mother in 1992, but the case was overturned on appeal. According to court documents, at one point the defense retained two expert witnesses, who testified that Burris suffered from histrionic personality disorder.

However, they said that diagnosis wasn't relevant to explain her motivations for the killing, but could explain her calm demeanor afterward as a behavior defense mechanism that denies the reality of traumatic events.