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Murderers' Psychiatrist Says Everyone Can Get the Urge to Kill

October 29, 1989|RAJ KAMAL JHA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Chase was called the Vampire of Sacramento. Seized by a delusion that he had to consume human blood, he killed six people, including a 22-month-old baby whose organs he hacked open before drinking the blood. Convicted of six counts of first-degree murder, he died of a drug overdose in 1979 while serving a life term in prison.

Fumiko Kimura was a housewife and mother of two young children. When she learned that her husband was having an affair, she waded into the ocean in Santa Monica on a chilly January day with her children and held their heads under the waves until they died, then tried to drown herself. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was placed on probation.

Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris met at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. Bittaker was there for robbery and Norris for rape. Within a year of their release in November, 1978, they had raped and killed five teen-age girls and recorded their screams on tape. Recaptured, Norris is now serving a life sentence, and Bittaker is on Death Row.

Dr. Ronald Markman knows them all. He has sat in a room, alone, with each of them, sifting the method from their madness, thereby obtaining evidence to help the court determine how responsible each killer was for what he or she did.

Markman is Southern California's leading forensic psychiatrist, the expert to whom judges turn repeatedly to provide impartial assessments of the mental condition of people accused of crimes. He has testified in more than 20,000 cases, including such celebrated ones as the Hillside Strangler murders and the slaying of musician Marvin Gaye.

The public fascination with these cases prompted Markman to write about them, and about the murderers and the murdered, to "satiate the morbid curiosity," Markman said in a recent interview at his Westchester office.

"We want to know more. There is something inside them (the murderers) that is also inside us, and we are attracted to them so that we can find out what that something is," writes Markman in his recently published book, "Alone With the Devil" (Doubleday).

The book, for which Dominick Basco was co-author, is an anthology of the "high-visibility" homicide cases that have marked Markman's career as a forensic psychiatrist, a career that began in the late '60s, when Markman was teaching in the department of psychiatry at County-USC Medical Center.

At that time, Department 95, the mental health court of Los Angeles County, had its offices in the psychiatric ward at County-USC. When one of the four psychiatrists who regularly consulted for Department 95 died of a heart attack, Markman was offered his position. Thus began a career that would bring encounters with some of the most dreaded names in California criminal history.

Although each case was unique in its complexities, Markman points out the common thread: the unpredictability of the urge to kill.

"Anyone can commit homicide," he says, "the person who sits across from you at lunch, your partner in business, your partner in bed. The only real difference between most of the killers in the book and most of its readers is that most of the readers have not killed another human being. We are all capable of killing if we feel our existence is profoundly and imminently threatened."

This idea first struck him when he was informed that the person he had bought his house from was charged with the murder of his partner. "That showed me we are all one step away from being the murderer."

And the idea was reinforced when the father of his son's best friend was killed by a robber. "I realized that we are one step away from being an indiscriminate victim."

Fortunately, Markman says, the urges in all of us that make us capable of killing are offset in normal human beings by the civilizing powers of restraint. In some people, however, this restraint is weakened by inherent or environmental influences that retard proper psychological growth.

Citing the widely publicized "wilding" incident in New York's Central Park, in which a group of teen-agers assaulted and raped a woman who was jogging, Markman explains: "These were youngsters without a superego, which is the internal policeman of the conscience. They couldn't be talked to in terms of right and wrong. They functioned simply on the basis of pleasure. I have run into youngsters who have severely injured their playmates, their relatives, their peers. But they have no remorse, because they don't have the capacity for remorse."

It is the interpretation of this capacity of individuals to appreciate the nature of their actions that has yanked psychiatrists from their consultation rooms to the courts, Markman says.

Acknowledging that many critics dispute the value of psychiatric testimony, Markman insists, "To make inferences from the present state and go backwards is not witchcraft, sorcery or poppycock."

In the interview, he outlined the way he works:

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