Psychiatrist: Teen on trial thought he was Jesus — (RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL)

SSRI Ed note: Teenager on pot and amphetamines becomes delusional with antidepressants

Original article no longer available


Elaine Goodman

5/31/2002 12:28 am

A teen-ager on trial for attempted murder in the baseball bat beating of two Muslim men outside a Sparks mosque believed he was Jesus at the time of the attack, a Harvard psychiatrist testified Thursday.

Because defendant Scott Cannady believed he was the son of God, he couldn’t comprehend that his actions were wrong, according to Dr. Harold Bursztajn.

He cannot imagine that he’s causing suffering, Bursztajn told the jury in the third day of the trial in Washoe County District Judge James Hardesty’s Reno courtroom.

The attack March 16, 2001, outside the Northern Nevada Muslim Community Center left Dr. El Tag Mirghani with head injuries that he says have forced him to give up his medical practice. Mohammed Sanad, who was with Mirghani, suffered a broken arm in the attack by two assailants.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Thomas Barb asked the psychiatrist why Cannady fled the scene, allegedly helping co-defendant David Nolette over a fence, if he didn’t believe he did anything wrong. Cannady was 17 and Nolette was 15 at the time of the attack. They are on trial together.

Bursztajn said Cannady likely was on automatic pilot when he fled, and as Jesus, wanted to help Nolette, his friend.

He’s helpful to his friend, but he’s very hurtful to Dr. Mirghani said Barb, a chief deputy district attorney.

That’s not the way he understands it, Bursztajn replied.

Cannady has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to five charges against him. Nolette pleaded guilty to charges of battery with a deadly weapon and robbery, but says he’s innocent of attempted murder.

On the third day of the trial Thursday, defense attorney John Ohlson put Bursztajn on the stand to detail Cannady?s history of mental illness. Bursztajn said Cannady has been hospitalized 10 times at seven different institutions since he was 13 for treatment of a schizo-affective disorder, an illness marked by delusions.

At younger ages, Cannady seemed “high strung” but nearly normal to those who knew him, playing soccer and Little League baseball, Bursztajn said.

The turning point for the boy was when his parents split up, Bursztajn said.

Cannady began smoking marijuana and taking methamphetamine to ease his mental pain, the doctor said.

Cannady’s illness took a turn for the worse in December 2000, when he visited a physician’s assistant while staying with his father in Sacramento, saying he was struggling with drug withdrawal and bouts of depression, Bursztajn said.

Rather than questioning the teen more closely about his mental history, the medical worker gave Cannady a prescription for antidepressants and told him to come back in several months, according to Bursztajn. The psychiatrist said the medication is dangerous to those with Cannady’s type of illness, causing delusions to flare up.

Scott’s behavior went further out of control, the doctor said.

Bursztajn also pointed to a history of mental illness in Cannady’s family, including an aunt who has been institutionalized with the same type of illness.

Bursztajn said Cannady?s symptoms currently are controlled by medication. He said the teen?s illness is treatable, but predicted a long hospitalization for him if he?s not sent to prison.

The doctor, who testified much of the day, appeared confident and relaxed, even during questioning from the prosecutor and Nolette?s attorney, Larry Dunn.

Dunn questioned the psychiatrist’s assertion that someone with Cannady’s type of illness is easily influenced by others. If that’s the case, Dunn asked the doctor, would he be surprised to learn that Cannady proposed the robbery, took Mirghani’s wallet and was the first to flee the scene.

Bursztajn said the actions Dunn described would not change his opinion that Cannady was in a delusional state.

Bursztajn said he’s receiving $5,000 a day for working on the case. When asked the total he’ll be paid, Bursztajn said it would be a substantial amount but he couldn’t name a precise sum.

The psychiatrist said his fee does not depend on the outcome of the trial.

Hardesty said he?ll review the tape before deciding if it’s admissible.

Also Thursday, Nolette?s attorney asked the judge to withdraw his client’s guilty pleas and dismiss the case. Nolette said on Friday that he was pleading guilty to four of the five charges to ?take responsibility for my actions.

The attorney, Dunn, said testimony from several prosecution witnesses is invalid because prosecutors located the witnesses through Nolette’s statements to Sparks police in an interview the judge deemed inadmissible because detectives continued to question the teen after he asked for an attorney.

Prosecutor Barb said the witnesses came to light when one of them called Secret Witness. The judge will review the issue with lawyers before the trial resumes this morning.