Casey Anthony Trial: Psychiatric Clues of an Accused Child Killer

Michael Welner, M.D. looks at the evidence raised in the Casey Anthony trial.

ByAnalysis By Dr. Michael Welner
June 19, 2011, 9:42 PM

June 20, 2011— -- ABC News Consultant Michael Welner, M.D., one of America's top forensic psychiatrists, looks at the evidence raised in the trial of Casey Anthony, the Florida woman accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee. As the defense presents its case, what has been truly revealing of the person we think we see?

What evidence presented so far is most significant to you, based upon your experience with mothers who kill children, and why?

The history of Casey Anthony's inactions and actions is even more significant than her words. Stunning enough that this fully socialized woman from a competently-policed area would not report her child missing for a full month. Compounding the evidence of her detachment are her activities during that time. She was lounging aimlessly with her boyfriend, entering a hot body contest, carousing, and engaged in other remarkably unremarkable activities. That Casey was so unaffected, and relegated Caylee's absence to such a low priority, speaks to how detached she was from her missing child.

Mothers kill children for a number of reasons. Some are very depressed and kill their children amidst their own suicide attempts, thinking they are looking after the children's best interest. Some are psychotic and have irrational motivations. Others may or may not have a mental illness or drug dependency, and kill because they are overwhelmed and are angry with the burden of their incompetent child care. Some may kill the children in part to spite the children's father, who leaves them feeling powerless. Others see their children as an inconvenience; because of perceived family pressures, they would not place them up for adoption but would make them disappear. Each of the above motivations is very different. In my professional experience, all are premeditated at least in fantasy.

The common pathway for mothers who kill is an anger and resentment that increasingly alienates them from their children. They may have been very warm and loving at an earlier point, but by the time the homicide takes place in the above scenarios, the mother is conspicuously more alienated. The detached, indifferent mother in the wake of a child's disappearance arrived at a point of alienation well before such a killing took place -- or it never would have happened.

The spontaneity of child killing seen in conflicts that get out of hand reflects in the level of guilt and undoing immediately after the crime. This is not to be confused with mothers who become more emotional when they reflect on the predicament that they face justice for exercising their control over a helpless child's life. That may explain the rising emotions in Casey well after her arrest. Or it may be just another shallow display of drama.

Is Casey Anthony a psychopath?

The brazenness and frequency of Casey Anthony's lying brings psychopathy to mind as a diagnostic possibility. But narcissistic and borderline personalities lie, as do as some histrionics. So, too, do politicians, who only sometimes are personality disordered. Key to assessing the demonstrated liar is gaining an understanding of whether this behavior limits itself to responding to trouble with the law, or whether lying is a lifestyle choice.

Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists sometimes assess for psychopathy even without an interview -- for example, when an examination is not possible and records are plentiful. Pivotal to that kind of assessment, however, is a life history that informs understanding of how Casey related to others at different stages and settings in her life. The psychopath has been parasitic, manipulative, dramatic, irresponsible, and/or has displayed many other relevant qualities in a variety of settings. One cannot diagnose psychopathy, no matter how outlandish the liar, without first studying all of this data as well.

What significance do you place in Casey Anthony's diary entries?

I think they are very informative. Forensic psychiatrists have to evaluate all forms of what a person has communicated, and how. The dilemma in assessing conversations over recorded prison telephone lines, in her interactions with police, and even with acquaintances and her boyfriend is that one is seeing an impression, a face, a self that she is projecting to others around her. That information is certainly informative, but the psychiatrist professional always has to be conscious about what may lie beneath outward appearances.

Diaries, on the other hand are exactly what lies beneath the surface. In most cases, we would never have access to that kind of evidence. Diaries are a window to the soul.

That a diary from the period of Caylee's disappearance is available is very useful. Personal and intimate evidence available, coinciding with the disappearance, includes the computer searches done from Casey Anthony's computer. Like the diaries, these communications -- to a computer, are driven from what was really brewing inside Casey Anthony.

So when you study the more private, personal evidence, what does it demonstrate?

It demonstrates that Casey Anthony really was as detached from her missing daughter as a delayed reporting would suggest. It goes even further -- for Casey Anthony noted that she was as happy as she has ever been, and wrote that the end justifies the means. Whatever her connection to Caylee at the time, her daughter's disappearance was a significant life event. These private communications from that time underscore the distinctive attitudes of satisfaction in the wake of death, and lack of remorse or indifference.

Casey's public appearance of indifference and shallow concern is underscored in these personal communications. The defendant's expressions of distress over her missing child, whatever their form, are contradicted by these intimate revelations of her contentment and happiness. Were death to have been accidental, these would have been the last qualities reflected in private writings.

Computer searches of chloroform and various modes of death have no other context to Casey Anthony's life. She is not a forensic pathologist or a pharmacologist or a trauma specialist -- why would she need to study neck-breaking?

Since the defense really has not provided alternative explanations for the above, they represent more than circumstantial findings, given their timing and the approximation to the facts. In that regard, the investigation yield is less muddy than it might appear.

When you consider the Depravity Standard research you have pioneered on the severity of a crime, what is the significance of these findings?

Research from higher court decisions, and from sampling of attitudes of the general public, has revealed strong support for 1) satisfaction in the wake of the crime and 2) indifference as attitudes that distinguish the depravity of a crime.

So does the victimization of a trusting victim (one's own child), as well as a physically vulnerable (2-year-old) victim. So does the blaming of an innocent person, exposing that person to a wrongful prosecution (as Casey did to a reported babysitter).

The Depravity Scale research is ongoing, and we welcome public participation at, in order to refine the significance courts should give to different qualities of a crime at the time of sentencing. If Casey Anthony is found guilty, findings from the Depravity Scale research will one day educate courts about what intent, actions and attitudes distinguish a crime -- or do not. This promotes fair, evidence-based sentencing that is color, gender, and socio-economic blind, and driven by public input.

Michael Welner, M.D. has examined a number of parents who have killed their children, including Andrea Yates. He is Chairman of The Forensic Panel, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, and contributes to ABC based upon his ongoing experience in some of America's most sensitive cases. In addition to Dr. Welner's landmark research on the Depravity Standard, he has adapted an Inventory of the Everyday Extreme (WIEEO) to the clinical prevention of everyday evil.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events