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Court Psychiatrist to Evaluate Kaczynski's Fitness for Trial

By William Claiborne
The Washington Post
SACRAMENTO, Calif.

Each morning and afternoon, Theodore J. Kaczynski is walked from his suicide-watch cell at the Sacramento County Jail to a small interview room with an observation window that his lawyers can peer through. On his side of the glass, the alleged Unabomber tries to convince Sally Johnson that he is sane enough to represent himself at trial.

Johnson, chief of psychiatric services at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., officially has a narrow standard of competency to judge. At its most basic, her job is only to evaluate whether Kaczynski is mentally fit to understand the proceedings against him and assist his court-appointed attorneys - whether, in other words, he is competent to stand trial. But in the background of her examination also lies Kaczynski's insistence that he conduct his own defense.

Forensic psychiatrists and legal experts familiar with mental competency hearings say that Johnson should complete the first level of her task in as little as a day or two. If she takes longer, they say, that would indicate her purpose may be to give the court insight on his ability to defend himself as well.

Kaczynski, who adamantly resisted psychiatric examinations by government experts in the past, dropped his opposition after deciding it was his only hope of being declared competent to act as his own attorney. Critics of such a move contend it would turn the case into a forum for Kaczynski's radical views and result in a "circus" and a possible mistrial in a proceeding where the death penalty is part of the stakes.

The 55-year-old, Harvard-educated mathematics genius is charged in this trial with four bombings, two of them fatal, during an 18-year series of mail bomb attacks that killed three people and injured 29 others. The attacks, prosecutors say, were part of his campaign against the technological evils of modern civilization.

Kaczynski has repeatedly tried to dismiss his court-appointed attorneys, Quin Denvir and Judy Clarke, who contend that he is a delusional paranoid schizophrenic incapable of forming the intent to kill. According to them, however, he cannot endure being portrayed as a madman, and would rather face trial without attorneys than listen to testimony about his mental health.

An apparent attempt to hang himself in his jail cell last week was attributed by his attorneys to his fear of a mental defect defense. It was after that incident that he asked to be allowed to represent himself in court.

Kaczynski, whose examination began Monday, is "doing just fine" and is cooperating with Johnson, said Sgt. Jim Cooper of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. Morning and afternoon sessions are being limited to about two hours each, he said.

Johnson's examination was ordered to help U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. decide on the competency issue. But it also is expected to play a key role in whether prosecutors, a Justice Department death penalty review committee and Attorney General Janet Reno agree to defense efforts to let him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without possibility of parole.

The initial examination was conducted in a suspect lineup room with a one-way glass panel through which Denvir and Clarke were able to observe the questioning but not hear it. Later, the interviews were moved to a smaller interrogation room with a two-way window.

Although Johnson has not commented on her examination of Kaczynski, forensic psychiatrists who routinely conduct competency evaluations said that in all likelihood the examination consists mostly of questioning in which Johnson is trying to draw out Kaczynski's mental history and state of mind, with some diagnostic testing.

"It's more difficult in cases where you can't rely on the answers being credible, so you ask more questions and look for consistencies where you can find them," said Sol Faerstein, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who has testified at numerous competency hearings.

"Hearing voices, believing that the world is controlled by technology and being delusional may not necessarily interfere with your ability to understand the proceedings against you or to assist your counsel," Faerstein said. "If you hear voices that say the whales are dying,' that might not affect your competency. But if you hear voices that say Quin Denvir is the devil,' that might. You have to keep drawing the subject out."

A complicating factor in Kaczynski's case, Faerstein said, is that the defendant is "so intelligent that he may mask his responses cleverly. This guy knows what he's doing, and the examiner has to stay a step ahead of him."