Original article no longer available

The Fresno Bee (CA)

June 20, 2000

Author: Michael Baker THE FRESNO BEE []

Fresno police officer Paul Hurth tried to “magically” make his actions disappear after killing his lover’s husband, a psychologist testified Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.

Hurth wanted to “undo” the shooting of Ralph Peter Gawor on Feb. 18 — not cover up a crime — when he began to clean up the dead man’s house, psychologist Paul Berg said.

The Oakland-based psychologist spent about three hours on the witness stand explaining the concept of “undoing” as a defense mechanism employed by somebody who is confronted with a situation he or she cannot psychologically handle.

If an action is premeditated — a condition needed to convict someone of first-degree murder – a person is less likely to “undo” his act, Berg said.

“A person who plans is less likely to be traumatized, and therefore less likely to engage in a defense mechanism like undoing,” Berg said.

On cross-examination, prosecutor James Oppliger brought out that Berg never performed a clinical evaluation of Hurth and that other factors could raise doubts that the defendant was undoing.

Under questioning by defense attorney Ernest Kinney, Berg said Hurth was undoing when he began to move a couch to its original position, when he picked up a broken ceramic planter and threw it away, and when he moved the dead man into a what looked like a more comfortable position.

“A man just died, yet the interest was in making the house clean,” Berg said. “This undoing is doing good acts ? as if these acts undo the horribleness. The person tries to magically negate that the act happened. Trying to make believe, to themselves, that it didn’t happen.”

This usually occurs after an unexpected traumatic event, he said.

“Their mind is overloaded,” Berg said, adding that the person “psychologically unplugs” while unconsciously trying to negate what has been done.

The action of killing the husband of his lover, Nancy Gawor, was even more traumatic for Hurth because of the way he lived his life, the psychologist said. Hurth is a Baptist pastor and former chaplain.

“The action that he did was so different than 99% of his life,” Berg said.

Kinney asked whether uprighting a table overturned in the struggle with Gawor was an attempt to “undo” or to cover up a crime.

“I can’t see that kind of bizarre behavior was trying to hide a crime,” Berg answered. “Moving the table is not going to actually change the course of an investigation.”

Berg also said the act of going to Gawor’s residence, in the 3300 block of West Sierra Avenue, also could be seen as an attempt to “undo the affair.”

Hurth has testified that he was tormented and embarrassed by the affair and went to Gawor’s house wearing his police uniform to talk about and end the adulterous relationship.

To his surprise, Hurth has said, Gawor reacted violently to the admission, a fight ensued and, scared for his life, Hurth fired his service weapon.

Berg based his opinions on a 12-page account written by Hurth, two synopses presented to the doctor of what the defendant told a jail chaplain and jail psychological assessor, police reports and a videotape of Hurth being questioned by investigators hours before his arrest Feb. 26.

Oppliger, after pointing out that Berg never interviewed Hurth, asked the psychologist whether his evaluation would have been aided by a face-to-face talk with the defendant.

Berg said that while having such a meeting could have helped, he felt the documents he used were “sufficient for explaining what happened after the fact.”

Oppliger has told the jury that Hurth lied to his family and others to establish an alibi for murder when it became apparent that Nancy Gawor and her husband were reconciling.

The prosecutor said during opening statements that actions by Hurth after shooting Gawor were undertaken to “alter or cover up” the struggle between the two men. Oppliger also has said there were signs that Hurth did not panic after the crime.

Oppliger asked Berg whether certain things could affect the psychologist’s conclusion and make it more plausible that Hurth was trying to cover up.

If a suspect put on gloves to keep from leaving fingerprints, the prosecutor asked, would it make it less likely the person was trying to undo his actions?  If the person removed a police baton from a crime scene, trying to throw an investigator off, would that mitigate undoing? If a person cleaned his gun the day after a shooting to avoid detection, would that mitigate undoing?

Finally, Oppliger said, if a person then reloaded his weapon with different ammunition than that used in the killing, would that lessen the chance that a suspect was trying to undo his actions?

To all the questions, Berg answered in the affirmative.

Berg also said crime scene reconstruction is a legitimate practice. Oppliger plans on calling such an expert as a rebuttal witness today.

Before Berg testified, the defendant’s family physician, Kevin Wingert, was called to the witness stand.

Wingert said Hurth showed no signs of depression before Oct. 1, the day he met Nancy Gawor.  But when Hurth visited the doctor’s office Nov. 10, he showed symptoms.

On Dec. 12, Wingert diagnosed Hurth as being clinically depressed and “feeling guilty about things.” The defendant was prescribed an antidepressant, called Wellbutrin, after he told the doctor he had been “tearful” for about two months, Wingert said.

The last time Wingert saw Hurth, on Feb. 9, “everything was pretty much improved.”

On cross-examination by Oppliger, the doctor said he had assumed the depression was a result of work-related stress and that Hurth never told him about his affair with Nancy Gawor.

Character witnesses for the defense and prosecution testified after the doctors.

Fresno police Sgt. Michael Doyle said the defendant is nonviolent “both on and off the job.”

Oppliger, as he has done with all defense witnesses that just testified to the defendant’s character, did not ask any questions of Doyle.

After Doyle, the defense rested its case, and the prosecution began presenting rebuttal witnesses. Oppliger called three people who testified to the good nature and nonviolent demeanor of Ralph Gawor.

“I’ve never seen Ralph raise his voice,” said Wayne Eisner. “I’ve never seen Ralph strike out in anger.”

All three of the witnesses said that when confronted with a situation that could make most people angry and want to lash out, Gawor remained calm.

“He’s one of the easiest-going people I’ve ever met,” said Tom Frost.

Kinney had a common question for all three witnesses: “Had you ever been around Mr. Gawor when he was told his wife was having an affair?”

All three answered, “No.”

Oppliger expects to finish presenting rebuttal witnesses today. Judge Edward Sarkisian told the jury they will probably hear closing arguments Wednesday and could begin deliberations that day.

Index Terms: 6/20/2000