David Attias, pictured here in 2012, is testifying this week before Judge Thomas Adams to state he is sane, 21 years after mowing down four people in Isla Vista with his car. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Witnesses took the stand Thursday, diving into the brain of David Attias — the man who mowed his turbocharged Saab through a busy Isla Vista street in 2001, ultimately killing five people and serving 10 years in Patton State Hospital — as he petitions to legally restore his sanity, effectively clearing him from any conditional release program.

The trial started earlier this week, 21 years to the day after the crime, with Attias himself taking the stand and updating the court as to the progress he’s made in the 10 years since he was released from the psychiatric facility. He now lives in Oxnard, reporting to a state agency known as CONREP (Conditional Release Program), which includes four therapy sessions every week, medication for bipolar disorder, and regular check-ins with his psychiatrist.

His attorney, Jack Early, called two witnesses on Thursday: psychological science professor Elizabeth Cauffman and forensic psychologist Lisa Hazelwood. Cauffman presented studies on brain development in adolescents, which showed that many young offenders often “age-out” of criminal behavior as they mature. Only 9 percent of the males in the study continued their risky and criminal behavior past the age of 25. During cross-examination, prosecutor Maggie Charles questioned whether this 9 percent chance should be considered a low enough risk.

Hazelwood evaluated Attias at Patton State Hospital in 2010 and now works for the California Board of Parole Hearings. Her most recent evaluation of Attias included a detailed report and a “violence risk assessment.” In her testimony, Hazelwood dove into Attias’s full history, from his violent outbursts as a child to his diagnosis of pervasive development disorder to varying diagnoses of ADHD and bipolar disorder.

One of the major sticking points Judge Thomas Adams has to consider is whether or not Attias’s behavior can be attributed to the varying bipolar diagnoses. Hazelwood said that Attias’s manic behavior around the time of the crime could be seen as bipolar presenting but that it was also found that he was experiencing a “substance-induced” psychosis.

Attias had already struggled with feelings of alienation, exacerbated by his pervasive development disorder and then by his increased drug use. Though at the time of the incident there were no major drugs in his system, he attested to heavily using ecstasy, ketamine, and psychedelics up until two days before. Hazelwood argued that ever since Attias has been clean and sober, over 21 years, he has never shown any signs of either manic or depressive episodes.

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Prosecutor Charles called CONREP psychiatrist Steven Ruths, who offered another explanation. Ruths, who is currently working with Attias, said that the lack of “cycling” into these poles could also be attributed to a strict regimen of mood stabilizers and a structured environment. 

CONREP officials deemed him unprepared for a full restoration of sanity, maintaining that the conditions of his release are exactly what have kept him stable. Hazelwood and Ruths agreed that should Attias ever slip back into drug use, there is a high risk of another mental break.  

There is no question that the nearly 40-year-old Attias sitting in the courtroom today is a far cry from the self-proclaimed “angel of death” who plowed through one of Isla Vista’s busiest blocks on a Friday night, leaving bodies strewn in the street, and a community shocked for decades.

Today, Attias sits in the gallery in Judge Adams’s cavernous Department 1 courtroom in the Santa Barbara Courthouse, alongside his parents and the public in attendance, watching while lawyers and witnesses debate his fitness of mind. He sits up straight, in a dark suit and closely cropped blond hair, and he seems like a man tired of all the attention, hoping to avoid standing out in any way. 

Also in the courtroom is the sister of one of the victims of his actions that night over two decades ago. She was 17 when Attias killed her only brother, leaving her family grieving ever since. The family has kept tabs on the case closely. Every time a new court date comes they are watching, and every time they say it stings more. When Attias pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, it stung, as did it again when he was released from Patton State Hospital in 2012. To them, this latest petition for him to be completely free from the conditions of his release seems like a gross miscarriage of justice. At the very least, the sister said, he should have to comply with the conditional release.

Attias will take the stand again on Tuesday, on what is expected to be the final day of the trial.

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