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Defense expert in Capital Gazette shooting case profiled in HBO documentary ‘Crazy, Not Insane’

Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, the psychiatrist hired by lawyers representing the gunman who murdered five Capital Gazette employees, is profiled in an HBO documentary film, 'Crazy, Not Insane,' which premiered Wednesday night on HBO Max.
Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, the psychiatrist hired by lawyers representing the gunman who murdered five Capital Gazette employees, is profiled in an HBO documentary film, 'Crazy, Not Insane,' which premiered Wednesday night on HBO Max. (HBO)

Arthur Shawcross, Joseph Paul Franklin and Ted Bundy.

Those are just a few of the notorious murderers examined by Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a pioneering and, at times, polarizing forensic psychiatrist who’s testified at a range of highly publicized trials.

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Lewis was profiled in an HBO Documentary “Crazy, Not Insane,” which premiered on the channel’s streaming service, HBO Max, Wednesday night. It was the doctor’s mindset and career that were under examination in the film, which featured grainy video clips of her interviews with murderers put to death for their crimes and narration of candid excerpts from her notes.

In the film she reflects on her fascination with why people kill and the findings of her research, some of which has not been unanimously accepted. She describes where the intersection of the law and psychiatry falls short, like when gory evidence is given more weight in the courtroom than compelling information about why a person committed the crime.

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“The gruesomeness of the murder," Lewis says in the film, "is directly proportional to the craziness of the murderer.”

The HBO documentary film "Crazy, Not Insane," which premiered Wednesday night on the streaming service, HBO Max, profiles Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a pioneering and polarizing forensic psychiatrist who was hired by lawyers representing the gunman who murdered five Capital Gazette employees. The Capital Gazette shooting case is not mentioned in the film.
The HBO documentary film "Crazy, Not Insane," which premiered Wednesday night on the streaming service, HBO Max, profiles Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a pioneering and polarizing forensic psychiatrist who was hired by lawyers representing the gunman who murdered five Capital Gazette employees. The Capital Gazette shooting case is not mentioned in the film. (HBO)

She’ll soon add the case of another killer to her dusty file cabinets. Lewis, now 82, is the lead expert hired by the team of lawyers representing the gunman who killed Capital Gazette employees Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters on June 28, 2018. Her work is expected to come under scrutiny when she testifies at his trial.

The mass shooting carried out by Jarrod Ramos has been categorized as the largest killing of American journalists in U.S. history. The 40-year-old has already admitted to the murders; he pleaded guilty in October 2019 to every count in the indictment against him. All that remains to be determined is whether he was insane at the time of the attack. Ramos maintains he was, and Lewis is slated to testify in support of his claim.

Ramos’ trial has been delayed, again, because of the coronavirus pandemic. But when it takes place, presumably sometime in the late spring or summer of the new year, Lewis figures to be at the forefront of the defense’s case. Her career, credentials and controversies will be attacked by prosecutors during a proceeding that legal experts have referred to as a “battle of the experts.”

Joining Lewis on the defense team and also featured in the film is Catherine Yeager, a psychologist who’s worked alongside Lewis for years. Yeager videotaped some of Lewis' most famous interviews. In the film, Yeager says she applied for a job as a research assistant for juvenile delinquents. The researcher turned out to be Lewis and a productive partnership was born.

Yeager and Lewis met with Ramos like they did some of the other murderers, although the case was not mentioned in the documentary. Over three to four days, they conducted various mental tests. They collaborated with Dr. Thomas Hyde, an expert in forensic neurology. Hyde, who’s not in the film, conducted neurological tests and found “nothing remarkable” about Ramos’ evaluation but said it was “not inconsistent” with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, according to prosecutors.

Lewis wrote her opinion of whether Ramos meets Maryland’s legal definition for insanity, a standard mirrored by a number of other states: a person is not criminally responsible by reason of insanity if they, because of a mental disorder, could not understand what they did was wrong or stop themselves from doing it. She said Ramos was insane because of a diagnosis including autism spectrum disorder, court documents detail.

In a pretrial pleading, prosecutors wrote Lewis said in her report that Ramos has an “autistic and delusional understanding of the world.”

Prosecutors already began to sow doubt about her work in Ramos’ case in hearings about legal matters.

And the trial will pit her opinion against those of two other forensic psychiatrists. One of them, Dr. Sameer Patel, of the Maryland Department of Health, was ordered by the presiding judge to evaluate Ramos and come to a conclusion on his sanity. In the meantime, prosecutors hired Dr. Gregory Saathoff to investigate Ramos’ claims of insanity.

The opinions of both psychiatrists disagree with Lewis’, as they believe Ramos was sane when he blasted his way into the Annapolis newsroom — which is owned by Baltimore Sun Media — and should be sent to prison, not a psychiatric hospital, for the rest of his life. But the documentary depicts Lewis as being no stranger to adversity. And the that fact she’s pitted against Saathoff, who is contracted by the FBI, mirrors another consequential case from early in her career.

The State’s Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting Ramos, and the Office of the Public Defender, which is representing Ramos, did not respond to a request for comment.

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The film profiling Lewis focuses on death penalty cases — Maryland does not have capital punishment — and her and Yeager’s research on Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as multiple personalities disorder.

Lewis testified at times about whether a person was sane enough to be executed.

Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney directed the documentary. He said in a statement the film depicts America’s fascination with killing killers.

At times a narrator reads from Lewis' journals, which Gibney said filmmakers used as an artistic tool to depict an alternative personality. The narration also reflects on some of her deepest thoughts.

“I am haunted by the prospect of condemning to death a person who’s upbringing and brain function had made it hard, if not impossible, for him to control his acts,” the narrator read. “Granted, the person may be a menace. I have no problem locking him up and throwing away the key. Until we know how to treat such individuals, the public must be protected.”

At one point, Lewis interviewed a traveling executioner, Sam Jones, of Louisiana, to see whether he showed some of the characteristics of the other killers she’d examined. She said he exhibited psychosis through his paintings after each execution, though he was unaware of what was going on inside him.

“Not too many people have made me frightened," Yeager said in the film. "He did.”

In another scene, Lewis offered her thoughts on the case of Ricky Ray Rector, who killed a man and a police officer in Arkansas in 1981. Rector had been accustomed to saving his dessert for a while after dinner. He’s said to have asked to eat his pecan pie after his execution.

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“Now I would say he didn’t know what it meant to be executed. But my colleagues found that he was perfectly competent to be executed. And I don’t know who ate the pie," Lewis quipped.

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Lewis had been trained, she said in the film, not to believe people who claimed to have multiple personalities. However, her interviews kept telling her otherwise. Videos of her conversations show her talking to murderers and unearthing new personalities, ones sometimes defined by previous abuse. Often the killer’s demeanor and voice would change.

This controversial diagnosis came to light in the case of the serial killer Shawcross, otherwise known as the Genesee River Killer, who was convicted of 11 murders. He ate the genitalia of some of his victims. Lewis said she believed Shawcross committed the murders while assuming another personality, that of his mother, who had sexually abused him. She also said he suffered brain damage.

But at trial, where she testified for the defense, she was ridiculed. The prosecution’s expert, a respected psychiatrist who the FBI consulted with, said she came up with a phony diagnosis and used the questionable interviewing technique of hypnosis. He believed Shawcross was not insane under the law.

“I think it’s a hoax,” he said of dissociative identity disorder, adding in the film that he believed Lewis’ techniques caused people to think they had multiple personalities. “I think it’s a sad fact that people in my profession were so eager to find something that they did a form of interviewing that can cause vulnerable people to believe they have more than one personality.”

The jury sided with the prosecution, and Lewis’ testimony was mocked around Rochester, New York. Local radio stations even made a satirical song. As Lewis said in the documentary, it took the jury about two hours to find Shawcross guilty, but more than three years for her to recover from taking the stand. Nobody had believed her.

But the doctor stands by her work. Lewis’ resolve is perhaps best encapsulated by her response to a question by the interviewer. He asked why attorneys hired her.

Lewis acknowledged the lawyers calling her probably hope she finds their client “stark raving mad,” but that doesn’t sway her.

“I don’t really care for what purpose; I do the same evaluation.”

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