Psychiatrist Analyzes Murderous Impulses


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:

“When I have to determine the degree of criminal responsibility, I have to do a lot of professional gymnastics. If a person is charged with a robbery committed seven months ago and he pleads not guilty by insanity, I first examine his present condition.

“Then I ask myself, ‘If he committed the crime right at this moment, would he be sane?’ I take this condition and go backwards and say, ‘Is it not likely that this condition existed then? Or is it possible that some intervening variable, like medication, affected his behavior?’ I review this behavior and draw the conclusions.”

It is a rational, logical process, Markman says, and in concept a simple one. But as psychiatry has assumed a growing role in the legal process in the second half of the 20th Century, it has brought complications.

Jonathan Kotler, USC professor of media law and an attorney for the California First Amendment Coalition, notes that psychiatric testimony is “based on a diagnosis rather than on facts.” This, Kotler says, confuses things for the jury.


He complains that judges and attorneys do not trust the ability of the jurors to interpret the complex issues involved in a case. Hence, “hired guns,” such as forensic psychiatrists, are brought in.

Markman agrees. “Once the psychiatrist stepped in, terms that were once clear-cut became fuzzy.”

For example, the interpretation of the words, “deliberation,” and “premeditation,”--the two most important criteria for establishing first-degree murder--had to be refined once psychiatrists could examine a defendant and offer an opinion as to whether he or she was capable of deliberating or premeditating, Markman says.

The confusion was compounded when the legal system responded by introducing qualifiers, such as “meaningful and mature deliberation” in statutes and judicial opinions, Markman adds.

As he traces the history of each case in his book, Markman analyzes the limitations of the legal system and their effect on the final verdict. He is severely critical of the “discriminatory attitude,” of the courts, at one point describing them as “immoral and unjust because they are concerned more with technicalities than the truth.”

To Markman, there is no more classic an example of a murderer who almost got off on a technicality than Barry Braeseke, a 20-year-old man from Oakland who killed his parents and his grandfather in 1976. He confessed to the detectives after telling them that everything he said was “off the record.” Later, he confessed to the district attorney.


At Braeseke’s trial, his attorney argued that his client’s confessions were invalid because they had been obtained without making him aware of his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. But the court upheld his second confession, and he was convicted of second-degree murder.

The California Supreme Court and later the U. S. Supreme Court reversed the decision on the grounds that the confession was unconstitutional.

Two years later, when Braeseke confessed to the murders on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” the videotape was used as testimony and Braeseke was sentenced to life in prison.

Another case that disturbed Markman--he calls it the most “nagging and chilling case I have ever handled”--was that of Lawrence Bittaker.

Despite Markman’s testimony that he was a “significant danger to society,” Bittaker was released on parole. A year later, Bittaker was charged with the rape and murder of five teen-age girls.

“When I heard the tapes of the young girls in agony while they were being brutalized, I found it difficult to understand the revolving door form of justice which arrests, releases, rearrests and releases a criminal. I don’t think Bittaker should be released. Not that I am a redneck. But I think that he has lost the license to live in the society for what he has done.”


Such baffling contradictions of the legal system, and the disappointing feeling that “I wasn’t doing the fullest justice to my patients,” prompted Markman to go to law school after a decade of practice as a forensic psychiatrist.

Though Markman emphasizes that law school didn’t alter his methods of psychiatric examination, “It changed my perspective as a witness, because I became aware of questions that shouldn’t be asked. I was more in touch with the legal machinations.”

Further, it gave him an insight into the role of the attorney in the legal system: “The lawyer, unlike any other profession, is taught solely to persuade. He is not interested in the facts. If you can persuade the jury to disregard the facts, you don’t have to worry about the facts.”

Though he now has a law degree and has joined the American Bar Assn., Markman says he does not intend to appear in court as an attorney. “It would color my impartiality.”

Perhaps, however, Markman has missed his calling: Over the years, he has successfully fought 15 traffic violations. “I won them all on technicalities. I wasn’t being devious. The cops had signed it in the wrong place or they had forgotten to give the date.”

But he adds a sobering thought: “If I can get technical acquittals in traffic violation cases, imagine the technicalities involved in a criminal case.”


Markman declines cases that he finds difficult to approach impartially. When he was called to examine Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian residing in the United States, Markman refused.

“Sirhan had killed Kennedy for his warm feelings toward Israel, and I had come from Israel,” Markman said.

Born in what was then called Palestine, Markman and his family came to the United States in 1939, crossing the Atlantic on the last prewar voyage of the Queen Mary. The family lived for brief periods in New York, the Canadian city of Windsor and Chicago before settling in Los Angeles in 1945. After high school, he attended UCLA as an undergraduate and as a medical student.

Although Markman admits that his job--with its rapid-fire questions and the interaction with people who have been involved in heinous crimes--can be draining and stressful, the psychiatrist says he is able to leave it behind when he leaves work. “I don’t mix business with pleasure,” he says.

This is echoed by Nitza, his wife of 27 years, a teacher of Jewish studies at a private school. They first met at George Washington University, where Nitza was a student, fresh from Israel, and Markman was working as a psychiatrist in the Army.

“He has never brought his work home,” Nitza Markman says. “It’s our upbringing that stresses the importance of the family. He’s always there when anyone from the family needs him.”