Sometimes the Murder Victim Is Guilty, Says Court Psychiatrist Otto Bendheim
Then Bendheim had an idea: He would evaluate the mental health of Mr. Jones. Talking to the dead husband's friends and relatives, he produced evidence that Michael Jones was "a sexual psychopath with a true paranoid personality." He began beating his wife after their 1969 wedding. Bendheim's findings were so convincing the jury found Mrs. Jones guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a less serious crime than murder, and ultimately she served two years of a five-to six-year sentence.
Since the Jones trial Bendheim has performed what he calls his "psychiatric autopsies" in numerous other murder cases, most of them involving battered wives. His testimony is especially valued by defense attorneys: The usual plea made in such cases—temporary insanity—is losing credibility with juries as a result of overuse.
A psychiatric autopsy expands the basis for a claim of self-defense. Explains A. Melvin McDonald, the judge in the Jones case: "Self-defense only lets you look at the last few minutes before the murder. The psychiatric autopsy allows the jury to see the entire life of the victim." If the acceptance of such "autopsies" spreads, says McDonald, their impact could be tremendous.
Bendheim has detractors, of course; one of them is the Jones case prosecutor, James Braden. He charges that psychiatric autopsies rely too heavily on the defendant's testimony. Bendheim counters: "I've been criticized for falling for sob stories, but I corroborate everything. I give full consideration to the victim's genetic and environmental background, all the documents he left behind, statements by friends, relatives and witnesses. When you can't talk to someone, you look at everything you can." Bendheim also notes that he rarely accepts a defense attorney's invitation to examine a case; he usually testifies at the behest of judges who are expected to be impartial. Bendheim predicts there will be wider use of such testimony in the future. Adds McDonald: "A judge has to keep a handle on psychiatric autopsies, but they're a real step in getting the law in tune with society."
Born the son of a leather manufacturer in Frankfurt, Germany, Bendheim attended the University of Michigan Medical School. He completed his residency in neurology and psychiatry at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to Arizona in 1939. His practice is eclectic, he says: "I don't go in for the couch five times a week." In between sessions with six to eight patients a day (at $80 an hour per), he consults for Veterans Administration hospitals, the Public Health Service and other agencies.
The idea for psychiatric autopsies came to Bendheim when he remembered Not the Murderer, the Victim Is Guilty, a 1920 book by Austrian novelist Franz Werfel about fathers who had provoked patricide. Bendheim adds that a version of his technique has been used in California courts to evaluate the motives of suicide victims. In a 1972 case, Bendheim proved that the suicide of an Arizona laborer stemmed from despair over on-the-job accidents that severed his hands. That enabled the man's family to collect insurance benefits.
When he isn't working, Bendheim and his wife of 33 years, Ronnie, close up their home in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley (they live just down the street from Sen. Barry Goldwater) and take to the road. Often they retreat to their beach house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif. But this week Bendheim plans to celebrate his 70th birthday by climbing in the Himalayas. Asked what keeps him going, he answers instantly: "I love my work."