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The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978

Insanity Issue Arises

Berkowitz was arraigned in Brooklyn for the Moskowitz-Violante shooting, as prosecutors in the Bronx and Queens quickly wrote indictments against him for murders in their boroughs. The primary legal issue immediately became whether David Berkowitz was sane enough to stand trial.

A psychiatric report delivered to New York State Supreme Court justices in all three boroughs on August 30 concluded that David Berkowitz was not mentally capable of assisting in his own defense and did not understand the charges against him. Psychiatrists Daniel Schwartz and Richard Weidenbacher, Jr. felt that Berkowitz was "well aware" of the six murder charges, understood that they were criminal acts, and had "the intellectual capacity" to understand the legal process unfolding against him. Yet the doctors concluded that paranoid psychosis left Berkowitz so "emotionally dead" that he was neither capable of nor interested in assisting in his own defense.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold challenged the report, obtaining court approval for Berkowitz's examination by prosecution psychiatrist Dr. David Abrahamsen. A month of interviews convinced Dr. Abrahamsen that Berkowitz's demons were "a conscious invention" he was able to control, not a psychotic disorder which controlled his actions. Abrahamsen declared that Berkowitz could understand the legal process and assist in his own defense if he chose to do so. Justice John R. Starkey agreed at a competency hearing on October 21. A week later, Justice Starkey withdrew from the case amidst a furor over controversial statements he had made to the press about Berkowitz's intention to blame his actions on the demons. A new competency hearing was scheduled for the following spring before a different judge.

At the second hearing, psychiatrists Schwartz and Weidenbacher reversed their original opinion. They reported that Berkowitz's mental condition was improving from treatment. While not suggesting that he was sane at the time he allegedly committed the murders, they agreed that Berkowitz was now able to participate in his defense. Their reversal helped Judge Joseph R. Corso determine that Berkowitz was mentally fit to stand trial.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978 - Insanity Issue Arises, Cases Consolidated, Case Inspires New Law, Suggestions For Further Reading