Doctor talks of meds’ effect on defendant — (The Oregonian)

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The Oregonian

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

HOLLEY GILBERT

Trial – A witness speculates on James Classen’s state of mind while taking drugs before his wife’s killing

VANCOUVER — Antidepressant drugs that James N. Classen was taking prior to his estranged wife’s death could have propelled him into a manic state, a Portland physician testified Tuesday during a murder trial in Clark County Superior Court.

Classen’s medical records show he had been treated for bipolar disorder in the past and appropriately took lithium to control mood swings, Dr. Robert M. Julien testified. The medical records also made reference to his father’s bipolar mental illness, which can be passed on genetically, Julien said.  [This is not correct; there is no identifiable genetic source of mood.  It is known, however, that use of SSRI antidepressants decreases self-control and over time leads to a vastly increased chance of getting a diagnosis of bipolar].

In 2005, however, Classen was being treated only for depression by a mental health nurse practitioner who prescribed two antidepressants: Serzone and Wellbutrin. Those drugs are inappropriate for someone who is bipolar or has a genetic link to a bipolar disorder unless they are balanced with a mood-stabilizing drug, Julien said.

Without a mood stabilizer, antidepressants can push a bipolar patient from depression into a “manic flip,” said Julien, who specializes in the effects of drugs on the brain. The drugs could overstimulate a person so he would have insomnia, perceptual abnormalities and psychosis, he said.

Classen was not taking a mood stabilizer in February 2005, Julien said.

On Feb. 8, Classen confessed to police that he stabbed EveAnn M. Classen, 56, to death with sewing scissors early that morning in the bedroom of her Vancouver home.

Julien’s testimony came on the sixth day of Classen’s first-degree murder trial. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 22 years in prison.

Jon J. McMullen, Classen’s attorney, could ask the jury to consider a lesser crime, such as second-degree murder, arguing that Classen did not have the mental capacity to premeditate the murder or intended to kill his wife.

Classen is being held in the Clark County Jail on $3 million bail.

Also Tuesday, employees of Classen’s former Battle Ground dental practice testified about their boss.

Pam Anderson, treatment schedule coordinator, said Classen’s moods were “a roller coaster” and unpredictable. On Feb. 7, he was in “an extraordinarily good mood,” laughing and joking with staff, she said. “It was out of character for doctor.”

Classen’s work had deteriorated and he had trouble focusing in the months before his wife’s death, said Martha Lindberg, a hygienist who worked for Classen for 16 years.

Kim Benson, Classen’s dental assistant, also noticed the change. “It was a downward spiral,” she said.

Classen’s two sons, Maurice Classen, 28, and Marcel Classen, 26, also took the stand.

They became aware of their father’s mental illness in the mid-1990s when he tried to commit suicide, each testified. After his parents decided in January to divorce, his father was depressed and his mother worried about her husband’s mental health, Marcel said.

His father broke down sobbing during a church service and jumped from subject to subject, making no sense, during a meal out one day, he said. Usually an articulate man, James Classen’s behavior was a worry, Marcel said.

In late January, their father’s mood and behavior changed, the sons testified. He seemed to accept the divorce and be moving on, and the sons’ worries eased.

Always frugal and previously unfamiliar with computers, James Classen bought a computer, several programs he probably would not use and warranty packages, Maurice said. He also bought a pickup even though he had nothing to haul, and he planned “an exotic” fishing trip to Canada or Costa Rica, Maurice said.

His father seemed optimistic and excited about the future, Maurice said. In hindsight, he added, “He seemed to be doing too well.”