Fresno County prosecutors might have sidestepped some controversy in their mass murder case against Marcus Wesson by passing on an expert witness and prominent psychiatrist whose testimony in another high-profile trial has come under fire.
Dr. Park Dietz appeared on an early witness list the District Attorney’s Office sent to Wesson’s lawyers. But his name was absent from a 200-person roster that was reviewed by potential jurors this week.
Jury selection in Wesson’s capital murder case resumes next week. The 58-year-old is accused of killing nine of his children and sexually assaulting seven family members.
Testimony is expected to begin without Dietz in March.
The forensic psychiatrist has testified in some of the country’s most closely watched trials but he’s drawn criticism for his work on the case of Andrea Yates, a Texas woman found guilty of drowning three of her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates’ capital murder convictions were thrown out this month by an appellate court that ruled that Dietz’s false testimony tainted jurors’ judgment.
Dietz’s mistakes in the Yates case and the overturned convictions gave Fresno County prosecutors reason to reconsider whether to call him as a witness during the Wesson trial.
Assistant District Attorney Robert Ellis wouldn’t comment further on Thursday, explaining that the reasons for keeping Dietz off the Wesson case could relate to trial evidence.
Dietz was among five prosecution experts on a witness list defense attorney Peter Jones said he received Dec. 1.
Of the five, only Dietz was missing from the witness list included in a 21-page questionnaire prospective jurors received Tuesday.
Dietz did not return messages Thursday but earlier this month he said he didn’t expect to be hired by the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office because of the bad publicity he’s received for his testimony in the Yates trial.
Dietz determined that Yates was sane. He also talked about his consulting work on the TV show “Law & Order.” He told the jury of an episode involving a mentally ill woman who drowned her children but was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
A prosecutor in closing arguments suggested that Yates got the idea for killing her children from the show. But no such episode was broadcast.
Dietz said a “Law & Order” episode with a similar premise, but different details, was aired. In that show, a mother smothered her children and said God ordered her to do it. The woman is convicted in the episode. She was ruled to be legally insane.
Dietz said that as soon as he realized he made the error, he tried to correct it, but it was too late.
“I did make a mistake, no one is saying otherwise. And it was in a context where mistakes shouldn’t be made,” Dietz said in a Jan. 14 interview, during which he defended his reputation and that of his firm, Park Dietz & Associates, Inc. “We’re the most thorough, accurate, honest experts on the planet.”
In the field of forensic psychiatry, “you could put my square up there with the best in history,” Dietz said, referring to his accuracy on the witness stand.
But his false testimony in the Yates trial has already been used as ammunition by defense attorneys, including those who defended Cary Stayner, who was convicted in 2002 of killing three Yosemite Park tourists.
During the sanity phase of Stayner’s trial, his attorney, Marcia Morrissey, attacked Dietz’s credibility, saying he erred in the Yates case and was wrong in his assessment that Stayner didn’t believe in God.
Prosecution experts still on the witness list in Wesson’s case include: Kris Mohandie, J. Reid Meloy, Susan Napolitano and Randall Robinson. They all have doctorate degrees.
Jones has said he anticipates the experts will testify about mind control.
Police were called to Wesson’s home for a domestic dispute on March 12. After an 80-minute standoff, Wesson was arrested, and officers found the bodies in his home.
During a preliminary hearing in April, prosecutor Lisa Gamoian appeared to be laying the groundwork for a case involving mind control.
Her witnesses, most of them police investigators, testified that Wesson preached both Bible lessons and murder-suicide.
Wesson meant for the deadly pact to be triggered if police or employees with Child Protective Services ó people he called devils ó attempted to break up his family, she has said.
The day of the slayings, two of Wesson’s nieces went to his house to reclaim their children, according to preliminary hearing testimony. There was talk of CPS being called to the scene.