The Brainwashing Defense

Summary: Sniper case puts cult indoctrination to the test.

Lawyers for accused sniper Lee Boyd Malvo are using an insanity defense that claims John Allen Muhammad, 42, indoctrinated Malvo, 18, into a “cult of two,” such that Malvo could not distinguish right from wrong. Malvo is on trial for last year’s Washington D.C., area sniper shootings and will face the death penalty if convicted. Psychologists and legal experts are skeptical about the insanity-by-brainwashing defense, though some cult experts are adamant that the youngster was, in fact, brainwashed.

Muhammad plucked 15-year-old Malvo from the Caribbean island of Antigua, where his mother had abandoned him, and brought him to the U.S in 2001. An army veteran, Muhammad filled the teen’s head with visions of an impending race war and trained Malvo in marksmanship. He isolated Malvo, steeped him to his own idiosyncratic, vitriolic brand of Islam and imposed a strict diet and exercise regimen on his “adopted” son.

Steven Alan Hassan, director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Somerville, Massachusetts, argues that not only can a “cult of two” exist; it can spawn an extreme form of indoctrination. “People wonder how Malvo could laugh when describing the crimes. But in his ‘cult identity,’ it was all a game, and he wasn’t talking as the sensitive, caring, Catholic boy that he was,” explains Hassan. “In his cult identity, it was right for him to kill people.”

In psychological parlance, brainwashing can be likened to a dissociative disorder, in which one’s consciousness, sense of identity or behavior is altered, according to Hassan. Malvo’s lawyers argue that his true personality is in fact resurfacing now that his bond with Muhammad has weakened.

But legal experts sound the alarm at the use of such terminology. “Brainwashing is not a legal term, and is probably shorthand for a ‘lack of intention,’” says Richard Uviller, professor of law emeritus at Columbia University. “The defense has to show that at the time Malvo pulled the trigger, he did not intend to hurt the victims. Insanity defenses in general are rarely asserted and almost never prevail.” A similar indoctrination defense did not work for kidnapped-heiress-turned-criminal Patty Hearst in her 1976 trial.

Cult expert Robert Jay Lifton strikes a cautious note about the applicability of brainwashing to the sniper case. Lifton, author most recently of “Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World,” led groundbreaking studies on the indoctrination of POWs in the 1960s. The general criteria he proposed after studying thought reform––his preferred term for brainwashing—is that an individual must be isolated, degraded, forced to perform repetitive tasks and made to trounce earlier values. These elements appear to characterize Malvo’s behavior in the wake of the shootings, but Lifton is reluctant to comment specifically on that case. “A strong person, particularly an older person, can have an enormous influence on the shaping of mind and behavior of another person,” he says. “But there is still the issue of responsibility. One would have to be extremely cautious about labeling a process between two people to be thought reform.”

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