Last week we wrote of a case in Scotland in which a man accused and ultimately convicted of possessing child pornography claimed that his crimes were a result of having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This week we examine the case of a Kentucky man whose lawyer claimed that he murdered his wife due to OCD. Part two of a three part series examining OCD and the law.
In March of 2010, the lawyer for Jerry Seidl of suburban Louisville, Kentucky claimed that his 68 year-old client murdered his wife of 47 years as a result of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The couple had separated in 2008, and his wife Dorene had moved out of the family home. On August 7th of that year, after filing for divorce, Dorene sought a protective order on the grounds of domestic violence. In the petition, Dorene claimed that her husband had previously put a gun to her head, and on a separate occasion had told her “I’m just going to kill myself and get it over with. Do you want to go with me”. Despite this, the request for a protective order against her husband was rejected by a local judge on August 20th.
Less than a week later, on August 25th, Dorene returned to the family home to collect personal effects and to present her estranged husband with a note explaining what she felt she was due financially. It was at that time that the defendant drew a gun and shot his wife in the head five times, wounding her fatally. He then barricaded himself in the home for four hours until peacefully surrendering to the local SWAT team.
In presenting his final argument to the jury, Seidl’s defense attorney Bart Adams claimed:
“Our defense in this case is he had obsessive compulsive personality disorder,” said defense attorney Bart Adams. “People with obsessive compulsive disorder are driven by an unwarranted but unrelenting pressure to control all persons and objects around them. He lost control, there’s no doubt about that. He’s got to pay for what he did. He knows that I know it, everyone in this courtroom knows, but we’re going to prove to you that it was murder under extreme emotional disturbance.”
The primary flaw with the argument presented by Seidl’s lawyer is quite simple – he first claims that Seidl has Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) and then, in the very next sentence, says that his client has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not the same as Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). In fact, despite the similarity of the two terms, the two conditions are actually quite different. They are essentially the opposite of each other.
An individual with OCD has very specific thoughts which are experienced as unwanted, intrusive, and anxiety provoking. The clinical term for these types of thoughts is that they are ego-dystonic, which simply means that the thoughts are inconsistent with the individual’s values, beliefs and character. For example, some individuals with OCD might have unwanted thoughts about homicide, pedophilia, or sexual orientation. The individual with OCD experiences these thoughts as completely unwanted, highly disturbing, and incredibly disgusting. They feel horrible that that they are experiencing these unwanted thoughts, and go to great lengths in an effort to get these thoughts out of their mind. They never act on these thoughts.
Conversely, an individual with OCPD has thoughts which they experience as wanted, normal, and not at all anxiety provoking. The clinical term for these thoughts is ego-syntonic, which simply means that the thoughts in OCPD are consistent with the individual’s values, beliefs and character. For example, some individuals with OCPD might have the thought that their clothes should be folded a very specific way or that their yard should always be 100% free of leaves. The individual with OCPD experiences these thoughts as completely normal and reasonable, and expects others to comply with their desire that certain behaviors be done in a very precise and specific manner. They do not feel bad about these thoughts, and make no effort to get these thoughts out of their mind.
In presenting his case to the court, Seidl’s attorney called upon a local psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas Ruth, who testified that Seidl suffered from OCD, which Ruth claimed caused Seidl to be “controlling” and to “snap” when his wife asked for a divorce. Perhaps Dr. Ruth should return to school to get a better understanding of the difference between OCD and OCPD. There is nothing in reports of the Seidl case to indicate that the defendant had OCD. And as prosecutor Christie Foster noted, Seidl had never previously been diagnosed with OCD. In fact, Seidl’s lawyer describes his behavior as being “driven by an unwarranted but unrelenting pressure to control all persons and objects”, which is actually a pretty good description Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
Of course, this raises the question of whether or not OCPD should be an acceptable defense for murder. Seidl’s attorney indicated in court that his client deserved some sort of special consideration because he murdered his wife “under extreme emotional disturbance”. But aren’t all (or at least most) acts of murder committed under extreme emotional disturbance? Is being in a bad emotional state now an excuse for murder?
Apparently the jury in the Seidl case didn’t think so – after only four hours of deliberation, they returned a guilty verdict, and recommended a 35 year prison term.
Next week – Part 3: professional boxer Grant Brown assaulted a 70-year-old retiree, resulting in a fractured skull and permanent brain damage…and then claimed his OCD made him do it.
•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions. In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment. To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.