Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arthur Shawcross, the Genessee River Strangler

The Trial

Lewis went to Rochester two days early, only to discover that the money that had been reserved to pay for the neurological tests had been "squandered on the services of a writer-cum-criminologist, Joel Norris."  (He actually had a Ph.D. in psychology.)  He had conducted videotaped interviews with Shawcross, which his partner (Lewis claims) tried to sell to a local media station.  She was incensed and believed the judge should have halted the proceedings, but the trial went forward.  (Kraus, too, had learned about this, as Olsen describes it, and was annoyed at the lack of ethics involved.)

Then, the neurosurgeon that the defense had tried to hire ended up on the prosecution's side.  Although Lewis had once respected him, now she felt that he'd done shoddy work.  He had not even examined Shawcross.  Against court protocol, she decided to call him and confront him.  She discovered that the doctor had received the MRI scan from the defense attorney via Joel Norris and had recommended an EEG, but had never been retained by the defense.  That had left him free to respond to the prosecution.  He agreed with her, she writes, that further tests should be done, so she attempted to speak with the judge in private regarding this issue.  When that did not happen, she used open court to claim, "I have been lied to."

She meant by her own side, of course.  The attorney she was working for had told her the tests had been ordered when they had not been.  She believed that this outburst would get the judge's attention, assuming that the legal system is a search for the truth.  The judge ignored her.

"I should have turned around and gone home," she writes, long before she ever got into court.  But she'd gone ahead, which was her "second big mistake."

Under cross-examination, she was asked whether the interviews that Joel Norris had conducted might have influenced what Shawcross had told her.  She said no, based on her belief that she had conducted hers first.  She discovered that she was wrong about that.  The interviews had occurred simultaneously.  In open court, she was humiliated and made to appear unprepared.

Her testimony ran for three weeks, and she admitted that compared to the prosecution's confident and polished expert, Dr. Park Dietz, she appeared disorganized and clumsy.  She was angry and she let that get the best of her, making her ideas less credible and alienating the jury.  Dietz, who identified Shawcross as a malingerer, a faker, dismissed the idea of dissociation. 

Too late to do any good at trial, Lewis sent the brain scans to Pinkus for interpretation, and she says that he identified scars on the frontal lobes that could have influenced the defendant's ability to make proper decisions.  While she was not allowed to bring this into evidence, her discussion about the cyst on the temporal lobe was admitted.  Dr. Dietz dismissed it as insignificant in Shawcross's criminality.  There was no evidence, he said, that Shawcross had a mental disease or defect the prohibited him from understanding that his actions were wrong.  That fact that he'd covered many of his victims indicated that he clearly understood he'd be arrested for this if discovered.  He had held a job, was married, and had functioned competently in daily life.  He might be abnormal, might even have consumed parts of his victims, but these acts and delusions did not impair his awareness that what he was doing was wrong. 

The issue came down to this: whatever impairment he had, it had to affect his ability to appreciate the criminality of his actions.  One expert said yes, it did, the other said no, it did not.  Olsen reports that Lewis was paid $48,000 and Dietz $97,000 for their respective testimonies. 

Throughout the trial, Shawcross sat like a zombie, as if to appear that he did indeed have some kind of brain damage.  Yet it did not do him any good.

After five weeks of dramatic testimony and courtroom demonstrations, the jury was not sufficiently impressed with the defense interpretation of Shawcross's behavior.  They took half a day to find him both sane and guilty of murder in the second degree (not premeditated) on ten counts.  Shawcross was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the ten counts, meaning that he will have to serve 250 years in prison before he's eligible for a parole hearing. 

The second trial for Elizabeth Gibson's murder in Wayne County had been scheduled, but there seemed little reason to go at it again, since Dr. Kraus could not provide a finding of mental impairment that would amount to insanity.  Shawcross's attorney advised him to plead guilty on that charge, and he did.

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