Court psychiatric system under fire

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Two of the most heavily criticized court psychiatrists in Norwegian history finally started testifying on Thursday in the country’s ongoing trial of confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Their conclusion that he’s insane has been blasted from all sides, and also may lead to a major restructuring of forensic medical control in the Norwegian legal system.

Court-appointed psychiatrists Torgeir Husby (left) and Synne Sørheim before they started testifying Thursday with scathing criticism of their own critics. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was carrying the testimony live from the Oslo court house with a three-minute delay, to allow omission of information deemed sensitive by the court. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

Psychiatrists Synne Sørheim, age 46, and Torgeir Husby, 61, concluded last fall that Breivik suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and therefore can’t be legally held accountable for his terrorist attacks on July 22 that killed 77 persons. Their conclusion has since been attacked itself and the chorus of critics has grown, not least since Breivik’s trial began on April 16.

It’s not only the two court-appointed psychiatrists who’ve been criticized for a conclusion many of their colleagues view as faulty. The system itself and not least the state commission charged with reviewing and certifying the reports of court-appointed psychiatrists is under fire.

Professor Lars Gule, for example, believes the state commission that approved Sørheim’s and Husby’s report (Den rettsmedisinske kommisjon, DRK) suffers from conflicts of interest, making it what the Norwegians call inhabil, or unable to be objective and unbiased. Sørheim once led the commission herself, prompting Gule to claim in newspaper Aftenposten this week that commission members would have found it embarrassing if not professionally impossible to find fault with her work.

Gule said the objectivity of the commission has been an issue for years, since Norway’s professional community is relatively small. He also accused them of incompetent leadership, for adding to the confusion around Breivik’s mental state instead of clarifying it. The criticism grew when its evaluation of a second psychiatric report on Breivik, ordered by the court because of all the controversy over Sørheim’s and Husby’s initial report, was also seen as vague at best. It again appeared commission members were more concerned with supporting Sørheim and Husby than in accepting the second opinion.

Sørheim also has worked closely with Husby over the years, even reportedly viewing him as a mentor. That could make it difficult for her to avoid being influenced by his evaluation of Breivik, it’s been claimed, and their methods were scrutinized in court on Wednesday. Forensic psychiatrists are supposed to make independent evaluations of criminal defendants, but Sørheim and Husby found it too difficult to meet Breivik alone.

The commission didn’t seem to find that to be a problem, prompting more criticism from the legal community. Berit Reiss-Andersen, head of the Norwegian bar association Advokatforeningen, told Aftenposten that testimony by commission officials under questioning revealed “a lot of worrisome doubt” over whether the commission really evaluated Sørheim’s and Husby’s criteria for their insanity diagnosis and that they didn’t even question their lack of independent evaluations.

Commission officials also failed to reveal, not even to the court, that commission members initially disagreed over Sørheim’s and Husby’s insanity diagnosis. They ended up forwarding it to the court with a statement that they had no worthy or essential comments to add, when in fact the diagnosis had been the subject of professional debate.

Sørheim and Husby were expected to defend their work in court on Thursday. Some psychiatrists hoped they would say they’d made a mistake and wanted to change their diagnosis. Then the court could send Breivik to jail with no lingering doubt. Given Husby’s opening remarks Thursday morning, with scathing criticism of his own over those who have criticized his work and Sørheim’s, that didn’t seem likely.  (Views and News will come with more when the day’s testimony is conluded.)

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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