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The Mad And The Bad
Inside the Criminal Psyche
She wore a red sari with intricate gold filigree. He wore a jewel-encrusted turban and a black silk suit An orange sash, symbolic of the bond between man and wife in Hindu marriage rites, yoked the coffins in which the two twenty-year-olds lay. After the cremation, their ashes would be taken to India and scattered on the Ganges.
Shaleen Wadwhani was starting medical school on a full scholarship; Hema Sakhrani was aiming for a degree in chemistry. The parents of the engaged couple, immigrants from India and Pakistan, listened over the clouds of incense and glowing candles as a Brahman priest intoned the funeral verses. They sprinkled the bodies with sandalwood oil, colored powders, and clarified butter.
Noticeably absent from the funeral was the Nathan family. Mohes Nathan had been Hema's godmother. Her oldest son, Chandran, had always been something of an uncle to Hema. He used to baby-sit for her and more recently had helped her with her homework and studies.
Now Chandran Nathan sat in a jail cell in Mineola, New York, fifteen miles away, charged with second degree murder in the killing of Hema's betrothed, Shaleen Wadwhani. When Hema was told of her fiance's death, she leaped from the window of her family's sixteenth floor apartment. Her last words were, "Why did this happen?"
Why did it happen? When I first heard about the killing on the eleven o'clock news, I had a premonition I would be called upon as a forensic psychologist to answer that question. According to the news report, Nathan, a thirty-five-year-old Sri Lankan immigrantand actuary for the City of New York, obsessed with a young woman, had gone berserk, confronted her fiance at his home on suburban Long Island, and emptied forty-one rounds from an assault rifle through the heavy oak door, riddling the body of the young medical student who stood behind it. I watched the television footage of Nathan being taken away in handcuffs by police; I saw how the media were already in the process of turning this swarthy man with his heavy-lidded, glowering eyes into a parody of the evil foreign terrorist.
Nearly a year would pass before my premonition proved true and it became my task to try to get inside the mind of this enigmatic, fearsome man and to reconstruct what nuight have been going on for him at the moment he opened fire with an MAK-90, on Monday, May 24,1993
For more than two decades, I have attempted to straddle two disparate, often conflicting wings of the ever-evolving science of psychology. I've maintained a private psychotherapy practice named Harborview, for its scenic location on Long Island's north shore. My patients are usually high achievers, often pillars of the community, but inside they wrestle with the pain of depression, anxiety, or memories of childhood incest and abuse. Quietly, even heroically, these ordinary folk come week after week to face their problems. When I leave the safety of my therapy office for the courts and the jails, I am grappling with the minds and motives of people who may have the same sources of emotional pain but who have acted it out tragically, often violently.
The profession of forensic psychology, a recent fusion of psychology and the law, is practiced by a minority of licensed psychologists in the United States and taught in a handfid of graduate programs. I am usually called upon by prosecutors in all five boroughs of New York City and in its suburbs to venture into the tortured folds of the minds behind crime-minds like Chandran Nathan's. I use the traditional tools of my trade -- trained observation, clinical interviews, detailed history-taking, and psychological tests -- combinedwith the street smarts I've gained as a narcotics parole officer and by interviewing hundreds of murderers. But sometimes I must rely on psychological guerrilla tactics, like agreeing with a psychotic's delusions, entering his halluciations, or stoking a defendant's enthusiasm about drugs, sex, or guns. In these ways, I cull the killers who have no inkling of the wrongfulness of their crime from those who know exactly what they have done. In other words, I try to separate the mad from the bad.
As a woman, a wife, and a mother, I feel like I go through a sort of decompression chamber when I shift from holding a young rape victim's hand during a therapy session in my office to spending hours in a urine-reeking lockup, exploring with a killer the reasons why he gunned down his romantic rival on his doorstep. Sometimes I feel as if I almost have to change in a phone booth.
Certainly I felt that way in the case of Chandran Nathan. Nathan's attorneys were planning to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but the psychiatrist retained by the defense, an exceptionally scrupulous professional named Stu Kleinman, couldn't quite put his finger on a diagnosis for Nathan. He asked me to consult as a "fakebuster" to ascertain whether Nathan was truly mentally ill or a psychopath who might just be malingering -- trying to pretend he was psychotic to get acquitted under the insanity defense and not face criminal responsibility for his act. I am usually called in as a last resort, when the stakes are high and the mind of the killer on trial eludes other experts.
I pride myself on being painstakingly thorough. I always arrange to spend a minimum of ten hours face to face with the accused, giving him or her tests while I closely scrutinize behavior, body language, emotional reactions, style of relating, and thought patterns. This is called the clinical observation stage of an examination. Next, I take a careful and detailed history. Not only am I searching for any symptoms of mental illness in the past, I am also gleaning other sources of information perhaps overlooked by the police, any of which might shed light on the defendant's mental state at the time of the crime. I always administer at least four hours of standardized psychological tests aimed at pinpointing a defendant's psychiatric diagnosis, analyzing personality structure, and revealing covert attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs, all of which might have a bearing on his or her attempt to fake mental illness and elude criminal responsibility. My specialty is subjecting the data I obtain to successive mathematical corrective formulas to filter the truly psychotic from those who are malingering.