NO WAY OUT: It’s perversely fitting the county supervisors will contemplate cutting the county Mental Health department by $7 million the same week that David Attias, the former UCSB student who killed four people in Isla Vista in 2001, testified he’s gained sufficient control over his raging mental illness to be released from Patton State psychiatric hospital. The good news is that Attias — who was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity 10 years ago, is now taking Depakote, an anti-psychotic medication that keeps petty annoyances and vexations from triggering blazing infernos in his brain. The bad news is it took his caretakers eight years to figure this out. The other bad news is that Santa Barbara County executives have proposed cutting the jobs of 15 frontline county mental-health workers. But they’re also pushing to increase Mental Health’s administrative expenditures by $500,000 so they can hire 10 new administrative workers. I’m sure in some parallel universe this makes sense, but not the one where I live.
Maybe there’s no real connection. Typically, county Mental Health serves the poorest of the poor. David Attias, the profoundly troubled man-child of a successful TV director, has always had access to the best care and treatment money could buy. But like many mentally ill people, Attias never thought he needed treatment until it was too late. During his first trial, one expert after another testified Attias was legally insane when he gunned his car into a crowd, knocking five people out of their shoes with such sudden violence that their laces remained tied. Only one survived. And the experts were right. Accordingly, Judge Thomas Adams sentenced Attias to treatment at Patton rather than 60 years behind bars. Now his handlers there — doctors, psychologists, and therapists — say he’s safe enough to be released to a highly structured community-release program run by the state. Not only that, but two psychological experts hired by county prosecutors say so, too. That’s because in the past 18 months, the experts at Patton have finally figured out Attias’s diagnosis: pervasive developmental disorder. And since they put him on Depakote, he’s not so arrogant, entitled, abrasive, and confrontational. Maybe we should spike the water supply with this stuff. It’s worth noting that Depakote is one of the many medications Attias stopped taking shortly after turning 18 and enrolling at UCSB. He preferred the recreational release offered by a cat tranquilizer with psychotic side effects, ketamine, instead.
Today, the experts assure us that the mayhem Attias wrought was caused by drug-induced psychosis. Keep Attias off crazy-making drugs, they insist, and he can be released and safely managed. But keep him in Patton much longer, they warn, and he’ll be “institutionalized” beyond the pale of possible recovery. To counter the considerable weight of all these experts, prosecutor Paula Waldman spent $10,000 of taxpayer money to pay forensic psychologist Margaret Hagen to fly out from Boston University, where she teaches, to testify that most therapy is psychobabble junk science, that rehabilitation for Attias is all but impossible, and that he should be kept locked up until such time as he is too old, slow, and arthritic to pose a physical threat. Hagen is famous for having written what’s described as a “blistering exposé” of the essential corruption of court-appointed psychological experts. Her book, Whores of the Court, is a monument to scholarly dispassion. As Attias’s attorney Deedrea Edgar noted, Hagen has never been a licensed psychologist, never had a private practice, never diagnosed a patient, never had a patient committed, never written any scholarly peer-reviewed papers, and never interviewed David Attias. Edgar suggested, via pointed cross-examination, Hagen herself could be regarded as one of the experts-for-hire for whom she’s expressed such scathing contempt. On the stand, Hagen’s expertise seemed rooted in scholarly articles dating back to the 1970s and 1990s that she’d downloaded off the Internet and the details of which she could recall only with a striking degree of un-specificity.
While I am quick to believe the mental health field is unduly populated by quacks and well-intentioned incompetents, Hagen proved not just unconvincing on the stand but alarmingly so. Should the judge’s decision hinge on her testimony, Attias will soon be out on the streets. Next time the District Attorney wants to shell out $10,000 for some crackpot opinion, call me. I’m quick and florid, know a few big words, and can certainly use the money. Hagen, I was shocked to find out, has been hired no less than four times by local prosecutors in the past year.
Saving the day for prosecutor Waldman was Attias himself. On the witness stand, he came across surprisingly well: a smart, articulate, forthcoming, and reflective über-nerd struggling to come to terms with the monstrosity of his actions. He made no real mistakes. But to succeed, he had to be great. And he was merely good. Where Waldman went for jugular, questioning Attias about X-rated letters he sent to an unsuspecting — and freaked-out — recipient he’d never met, she scored, at least with me, when pressing Attias to explain his new diagnosis. “It’s a developmental disorder,” he said. “It’s a form of autism. … It’s a problem in my brain.” The best he could muster was, “Not being in tune with what’s going on with others, being impulsive, not thinking.” The answers matter because the last time Attias snapped, four people got sent to the morgue. After 10 years in Patton, I’d have thought he had a clearer idea of what makes him go tick-tick-tick. Likewise, I would have expected he’d have spent more time focusing on the damage he’d caused. It came out on the witness stand that he’s only just starting. How can Attias stop himself from blowing up if he doesn’t understand what makes him explode in the first place?
My hunch is that Attias will be kept in Patton a few more years. Maybe he’ll do the work he needs to; maybe he won’t. But the next time one of her prosecutors wants to hire Hagen as an expert, perhaps District Attorney Joyce Dudley should donate the funds to county Mental Health instead. At least one mental health worker’s job could be saved. Admittedly, that’s not much. But it’s a start.