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Psych in the News
Article: Murder at the Capitol

By Elaine Cassel

A hot July Friday afternoon in the Nation's Capital, Washington, D.C. At the U.S. Capitol building, that regal monument to democracy, a rotunda filled with tourists, enjoying the beauty of the building and one of the many benefits of being in the freest country in the world, where visitors can roam the halls, enter the chambers, and meet and great their elected representatives. A lone gunman, with a .38 caliber handgun. Two U.S. Capitol police officers, guarding the entrance and a Congressman's office, shot and killed. A tourist wounded. The gunman, shot several times, survives, though critically injured.

The freest country in the world. Free to bear arms. Free to be crazy.

On July 24, 1998, Russell ("Rusty") Weston, 41 years old, arrived from Montana, walked into the U.S. Capitol building and began firing his handgun, killing two U.S. Capitol police and wounding a tourist. Officers trying to subdue Weston shot him several times. As of this writing, Weston is in critical condition at D.C. General Hospital, shackled and chained to his bed, with police officers standing guard. Prosecutors have charged him with two counts of murder. They have not yet determined if they will ask for the death penalty if there is a conviction. Weston's court-appointed attorney, a D.C. public defender, has retained a panel of nationally prominent psychiatrists and psychologists to assist him in preparing an insanity defense. Weston's motive is unknown, but he has a history of expressing paranoid beliefs about the U.S. Government.

Weston's rampage once again brought psychology into the forefront of the news. This time, paranoid schizophrenia, the devastating mental illness that strikes young adults and is often chronic. Weston's history with the illness is typical of so many of its sufferers-- an occasional in-patient stay after being committed because they were dangerous to self or others, released after a stay varying from a few days to 2 or 3 months (Weston was hospitalized for 53 days in 1996) with a prescription for anitpsychotic medication and the hope that they will take them regularly so they won't be dangerous again. Or, as one psychiatrist was quoted as saying, "given the Greyhound treatment--put on a bus with a prescription " (The Washington Post, July 27, 1998).

Our country's laws regulating restraints on personal freedom demands that formerly dangerous mental patients be released when they are no longer dangerous. Free to be crazy. They generally appear to be no longer dangerous when they are stabilized on antipsychotic medications. But when they don't take their medications (as Weston failed to do), paranoid schizophrenics can be dangerous. They may hear voices telling them that someone is out to harm them and that they must take action to protect themselves. They may misperceive an innocent word or gesture of a stranger as a mortal threat. Weston told his parents and neighbors that satellite dishes bombarded him with frightening messages and that television cable receiver boxes contained bombs that would destroy him.

The Weston murders also brought another facet of psychology to the news--the prediction of dangerousness. In deciding whether to release a hospitalized former dangerous mental patient, courts ask mental health professionals to predict whether the person will be dangerous (commit an act of violence) anytime in the future. The American Psychiatric Association has taken the position that psychiatrists have no special knowledge or ability with which to predict dangerous behavior. Human behavior admits of so many individual and situational variables that it would be virtually impossible to predict, with any degree of accuracy, whether someone might be violent in the future (if that future is any longer than the "immediate" future). Not surprisingly, research indicates that psychologists and psychiatrists are inaccurate in their predictions as much as 2 out of 3 times. Obviously, a coin toss would produce better results.

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