Your Questions Answered About Black Widow Case

Why did she do it? Forensic psychiatrist Dr. James Knoll on Stacey Castor.

ByABC News
October 9, 2008, 12:29 PM

April 27, 2009 -- Stacey Castor was convicted of murdering her husband by poisoning him with antifreeze and of attempting to murder her own daughter and frame her for the crime. Castor is also suspected of poisoning her first husband with antifreeze.

Dr. James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist, offered a psychological perspective on the case, and answered viewers' questions about how someone could commit these kinds of crimes.

Knoll is the director of forensic psychiatry and associate professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. He has worked as a forensic evaluator for state and federal courts, corrections and the private sector. Click here to visit Knoll's blog.

SARA: Does Stacey Castor's behavior and body language on the stand show any sort of clue about her mental state and guilt?

KNOLL: I think it is only natural to want to look for signs like this, especially when the defendant may have done something very cruel or terrible. However, body language is not a science that one can rely on with scientific certainty. Further, one must remember that there is much going on during a trial that can affect a defendant's behavior and body language. Examples include side effects of medications, anxiety, fatigue and attorney instructions to the defendant on how to behave, to name just a few.

But your question raises a salient emotional issue: Our own anxiety about being able to recognize or "spot" a murderer. The reality is that the face, behavior and body language of a murderer are very often rather ordinary and provide no prospective cues for recognition. From Eichmann to a long list of serial killers, the phrase "terrifyingly normal" is sometimes used. The absence of a "look" or a mark of Cain is highly disturbing to most. A journalist covering the Jeffrey Dahmer trial "could not get over" how ordinary Dahmer appeared, remarking that "there was nothing to him." [i] Schwartz A: The man who could not kill enough. Birch Lane, N. Y., 1993.

CHRIS, Rochester, N.Y.: I noticed during Stacey Castor's testimony a peculiar thing. When asked by the prosecutor whether or not she killed either of her husbands, she replied no and absolutely not. Oddly though, she was shaking her head up and down as if subconsciously saying yes. Is this a nonverbal communication that is valid or just coincidence?

KNOLL: It is tempting to want to read subtleties into details such as this, and you are obviously a very perceptive person. However, as mentioned previously, this really amounts to speculation, with no real reputable science to back it up. For example, it is equally possible that she was nodding her head affirmatively simply to put emphasis behind her answers.

LAURA, Dunfermline, Ill.: I'm wondering if Stacey is a psychopath and what determines if a psychopath kills or just makes other people's lives miserable who are subject to them?

KNOLL: Being a psychopath may make someone more likely to murder than a nonpsychopath, but to the best of our current and limited knowledge, what leads people to commit acts of intentional harm involves a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors acting in concert with situational variables. One set of factors affects and is affected by the others, and likely cannot stand on its own. In any individual case, the forensic psychiatrist must objectively weave them together in an accurate, coherent narrative.

Psychopathy is a term that refers to a clinical construct describing a more aggressive and highly narcissistic form of antisocial personality. Robert Hare has attempted to approach the clinical construct by developing a research tool called the Psychopathy Checklist. The checklist measures psychopathy via research established criteria. Criteria include personality characteristics, such as glibness, superficial charm, manipulative behavior and other antisocial behaviors. To make a diagnosis of psychopathy, one must obtain the defendant's "score" on the checklist. Doing this is a time-consuming effort that requires sufficient training, record review and hours of evaluation. The subject of psychopathy has received intense and productive study. However, our understanding of psychopathy remains somewhat rudimentary, and there continues to be some disagreement among experts in the field over the concept and its implications. The lack of clarity on this issue has not been helped by the fact that there is still considerable debate surrounding the nature and etiology of psychopathy. While some researchers view psychopathy as a discrete category or taxon, others make a convincing argument that psychopathy is best understood as existing on a continuum.

Also, while most research on psychopathy has focused on forensic and correctional populations, very little is understood about psychopaths who are functional in society or those who have superior intelligence. Some research has begun to focus on putative differences between the "unsuccessful" (caught) and "successful" (not caught) psychopath.

KIM: What makes the mind of a killer believable to himself?

KNOLL: It's important to remember that there is no one type of "killer" -- in other words, all people who have committed murder are not alike. Different killers may have different motives and beliefs about what they are doing, as well as different situational factors at the time of the murder.

Once the individual enters the criminal justice system and begins a trial, all manner of variables may come into play causing a murderer to appear confident and insistent upon his innocence. But certainly, self-preservation and self-serving concerns are often a driving force.

[ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498.
[iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998.

RITA, Melbourne, Fla.: Were mother and daughter evaluated by a psychiatrist? It was never mentioned in the show. Was Stacey tested for multiple personalities? I ask because Stacey's mother and friends seem unflappable in their support. However, her flat affect was incredible, especially when the prosecutor was yelling. Was she on drugs during the trial?KNOLL: To my knowledge, neither mother nor daughter were psychiatrically evaluated. For Castor to have been psychiatrically evaluated for the purposes of the trial, she would have had to open this door herself by raising some type of mental health defense, which she did not. She simply maintained her innocence.

I do not know whether Castor was on medications during the trial, as this information would have been confidential, unless she had raised a mental health defense. I too was struck by her lack of emotional expression. Please see one of my previous answers re: this issue and what factors can potentially cause a defendant to appear emotionless besides simple lack of remorse.

COLLEEN, Rochester, N.Y.: I don't understand the difference between psychopathy and mental illness. Aren't all serial killers mentally ill?

KNOLL: Most data on psychiatric diagnoses of serial murderers comes from individual case studies and retrospective analyses. The majority of these studies have suggested a common constellation of diagnoses: psychopathy, antisocial personality, sexual sadism and other paraphilias (sexual deviancies). More recent and well designed comparison studies have yielded similar findings. For example, a study comparing sexual murderers to other general sex offenders found that the sexual murderers had greater levels of psychopathy, sadism, fetishism, and transvestism. [i] There have been a few case reports of of serial killers who have been psychotic (lost touch with reality, have delusions, etc.), but these are rare.

As noted in my answer to another question, psychopathy is a term that refers to a clinical construct describing a more aggressive and highly narcissistic form of antisocial personality. Thus, only a fraction of all persons with antisocial personality disorder will be considered a psychopath.

Regarding all serial killers being mentally ill, this depends on what definition of mental illness you use. In the eyes of the law, psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder typically do not qualify as a mental illness for the purpose a mental health defense, such as the insanity defense. This is because, to the best of our current understanding, these "disorders" do not rob the individual of their connection with reality. On the other hand, if we step away from the law and courts for a moment, can we say that persons with psychopathy have some type of "illness"? This is the subject of intense debate. Some believe that there is nothing "wrong" with them in the manner of a deficit or impairment that therapy can "fix." Instead, they exhibit an evolutionarily viable life strategy that involves lying, cheating and manipulating others. Another camp believes that psychopaths do have "hard-wired" brain abnormalities, and that we may, in the future, find that these abnormalities cause them to process emotions and think differently from non-psychopaths. But then the question remains: Can you call it an "illness" in the traditional medical sense? At the present time, most mental health professionals are very hesitant to view it as an illness in this sense.

[i] Langevin R. A Study of the Psychosexual Characteristics of Sex Killers: Can We Identify Them Before It Is Too Late? Int Journal Offender Therapy and Comp Criminology 2003 47(4): 366-382.

The linguistic data revealed similar, if not identical, idiosyncratic grammar and word usage in both the note and Stacey's writing samples.

There was a high frequency in the note of uneccesarily repeating the theme of Stacey's nonresponsibility for the murder. For example, the theme: "It was me [Ashley] who did it, not you [Castor]," is repeated an excessive number of times in a one page note.

The note contained an apparent gratuitous explanation of the details of the crime, and in such a manner as to strongly suggest the putting forth of an alibi.