Brian J. Hallenbeck
Hartford - An expert defense witness testified today in Hartford Superior Court that Richard Shenkman was seriously depressed and psychotic on July 7, 2009, the day he allegedly kidnapped his ex-wife and burned down the South Windsor home they once shared.
"Was he able to have control over his conduct?" Hugh Keefe, Shenkman's attorney, asked Dr. James Merikangas, whose credentials include board certification in both psychiatry and neurology.
"No," Merikangas replied. "He was under the control of the mental illness -- the voices talking to him, the delusions ... Control returns when you treat the mental illness."
Merikangas said he interviewed Shenkman on two occasions in prison, in July and September 2010, and reviewed medical records, police records and prison records related to Shenkman's treatment for mental illness. He said he also listened to tape recordings of Shenkman's communications with police negotiators on July 7, 2009.
Under questioning by Keefe, Merikangas said he concluded that Shenkman was suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety at the time of the alleged kidnapping. He said the depression was of "psychotic proportions," a condition for which the layman's term is "crazy."
Merikangas' testimony was temporarily delayed while attorneys argued over exactly what he could testify to. With the jury dismissed from the courtroom, prosecutor Vicki Melchiorre asserted that the expert witness was not entitled to offer an opinion about whether Shenkman's mental state would have prevented him from controlling his behavior.
"That's the ultimate issue in this case and it's for the jury to decide," Melchiorre said.
Keefe vehemently disagreed, saying, "That's what experts do. They give an opinion." He said the ultimate issue was whether Shenkman could conform his behavior to the requirements of the law, the standard spelled out in the state's insanity-defense statute.
After a recess, Judge Julia D. Dewey ruled that Merikangas could give an opinion about whether Shenkman could control his conduct but not about whether he could conform his conduct to the law.
"He's not allowed to give a legal opinion," Dewey said.
Melchiorre's cross-examination of Merikangas continues this afternoon.