Witness: Harris was depressed in ’97 — (The Louisville Courier-Journal)

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The Louisville Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)

January 31, 2001

Author: KIM WESSEL, The Courier-Journal

Psychiatrist saw her two months before nursing-home killings

A psychiatrist who saw Kim Harris less than two months before she allegedly shot and killed two nursing home executives testified yesterday that he thought Harris needed hospitalization for her own protection.

“She was obviously severely depressed,” said Dr. Sherif El-Asyouty, who was a psychiatric resident at University of Louisville Hospital when he evaluated Harris on March 7, 1997.

Testifying at Harris’ murder trial in Jefferson Circuit Court, El-Asyouty told the jury he diagnosed Harris with major depression, and on a scale of 1 to 100, he rated her level of functioning at 15.

He said he had volunteered to treat Harris, free of charge, on a long-term basis – although that ultimately didn’t work out.

“I thought Ms. Harris was a good candidate I could work with,” he said.

On the eighth day of Harris’ trial, her attorneys continued laying the groundwork for their client’s insanity defense. While her attorneys do not dispute that she shot Deborah Bell, 46, and Patty Eitel, 43, outside the Jefferson Place nursing home on April 29, 1997, they’re trying to show that Harris was severely mentally ill and legally insane at the time.

Harris, 27, is charged with two counts of murder and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death.

Bell was executive director of the nursing home in eastern Jefferson County, and Eitel was its director of nursing. Harris had worked there as a nursing assistant for about 11 years but was asked to resign two months before the shooting.

Prosecutors contend that, after losing her job, Harris killed Bell and Eitel out of revenge.

But much of yesterday’s testimony centered on Harris’ mental state in the months before the shooting.

El-Asyouty said Harris exhibited schizoid personality traits, such as emotional detachment and a lack of close relationships. He said he referred her to Central State Hospital, a psychiatric center in Jefferson County, where she stayed for about three days.

He said he was never contacted about her again.

When questioned by prosecutor David Lewis, El-Asyouty said that, in his opinion, Harris was not psychotic she was not having delusions or hallucinations.

Lewis told him that while at Central State, Harris’ level of functioning was rated 55 on the same scale of 1 to 100. El-Asyouty said he wasn’t aware of that, and acknowledged that the rating is subjective.

Another witness yesterday, Dr. Seth Johnston, who saw Harris in September 1996, also diagnosed her with major depression. Johnston, an internist in private practice, said Harris had been referred to him by Eitel and Bell, who had observed changes in Harris’ behavior at work.

Johnston told the jury that Harris made no eye contact with him and spoke in a very low voice. Johnston said he thought she should see a psychiatrist and referred her to University of Louisville Hospital. However, he said he learned she had been discharged the same day.

He saw her again, and gave her a prescription for an anti-depressant. He said he was trying to prevent what he thought “might well happen” – a suicide.

Johnston said he scheduled another appointment with Harris, but she didn’t show up, and when he tried to call her, her telephone had been disconnected.

“I was not all that sure that she was ever what you or I would call normal,” he said.

On cross-examination, Johnston acknowledged that he is not a psychiatrist and that, in his guess, “tens of millions” of people suffer from depression.

Harris’ trial is expected to end next week. Her parents may testify today.

Copyright (c) The Courier-Journal. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number:  lou2001013111141272


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Doctor testifies Harris was insane, Defense finishes case in slayings at nursing home

Friday, February 2, 2001

By KIM WESSEL, The Courier-Journal

Kim Harris was in a “psychotic haze” when she shot and killed two nursing-home executives almost four years ago, a psychiatrist testified yesterday.

“I think she was not able to understand that she was doing something that was quite wrong,” Dr. Paul Adams told a jury at Harris’ murder trial in Jefferson Circuit Court. “She’s a very disturbed young woman suffering from a major mental disorder.”

Adams, testifying for the defense, said that, in his opinion, Harris, 27, was legally insane on April 29, 1997, when Deborah Bell and Patty Eitel were gunned down outside the Jefferson Place nursing home in eastern Jefferson County.

“I think considering everything I know about her behavior at that time, she was insane and was not able to reason,” he said.

With Adams’ testimony, Harris’ attorneys finished presenting their case, and prosecutors are now calling more witnesses in rebuttal.

The trial is expected to conclude next week.

Then it will be up to the jurors — who have been given conflicting psychiatric opinions — to decide if Harris was insane at the time of the shooting. Earlier in the week, they heard another psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Deland, say that Harris was mentally ill, but not legally insane.

To find Harris not guilty by reason of insanity, as defined under Kentucky law, the jury must find that she was so severely mentally ill that she lacked the capacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct or to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law. Harris is charged with two counts of murder. If convicted, she could be sentenced to death.

While her attorneys, Bette Niemi and Patti Echsner, aren’t disputing that their client killed Bell and Eitel, they’re trying to show that Harris was mentally ill and legally insane at the time.

Bell, 46, was the nursing home’s executive director, and Eitel, 43, was its director of nursing.

Harris had worked there as a nursing assistant for about 11/2 years but was asked to resign two months before Bell and Eitel were killed.

Prosecutors contend Harris killed them out of revenge.

Adams, who said he has taught psychiatry at a number of universities, including the University of Louisville, has met with Harris about 15 times since January 1998 — eight months after her arrest. He said he spoke with her parents and sister, and sat in on Harris’ sessions with Deland, her treating psychiatrist.

Adams told the jury that he diagnosed Harris with schizoaffective disorder, which means she suffers from both schizophrenic symptoms and mood swings. He said she has had hallucinations, hearing noises in her head — like a crowd of people talking — and voices telling her that she’s “no good.”

Adams described how, at different times in her life, Harris was obsessed with Catholicism, home schooling, dog training and midwifery. “These reached delusional proportions — not just obsessions,” he said.

Adams said Harris told him that on the day of the murders, she had wanted to take Eitel to a graveyard in Nelson County, then kill herself in front of her. He said Harris was not prepared when she saw that Bell was with Eitel.

“She got very confused,” Adams said. “There was something standing in the way of killing herself.”

Adams told the jury that Harris doesn’t remember shooting the women.

When questioned by prosecutor David Lewis, Adams acknowledged that he got much of the information used to make his diagnosis from Harris or her attorneys. He said he did not talk to anyone who saw Harris the day of the shooting.

Deland, who testified Wednesday, said that he diagnosed Harris with major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but said, in his opinion, that she was not psychotic and not legally insane.

Adams noted that Harris is on an anti-psychotic medication, and said it’s “perplexing” that she is being treated with that by a doctor who doesn’t think she is psychotic.

Deland said he gave Harris anti-psychotic medication because it also helps treat anxiety, and with Harris, he said, it “quelled her agitation.”