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USA v. Peterson, et al.

Distinguishing a Liar from a True Believer, and Other Complications of a Fraud Case


Spencer Harris Morfit

October 9, 1998

Spencer Harris Morfit is a professional journalist and author who lives in Westford, Massachusetts. Over the past ten years she has written and spoken extensively on the "false" or "recovered" memory phenomenon. This includes appearances on talk radio shows nationally. Her writings include Challenge to Psychotherapy, which was the first article published by a non-professional in the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy (Winter, 1994). As a result of her work she was appointed to the Scientific and Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome in 1995, a board mostly comprised of therapeutic professionals.

Ms. Morfit acknowledges that at this point she has a clear position on many of these issues. "Some would call this a ‘bias,’" she says, "but I have done ten years of homework on these issues and if it is a bias it is a considered one." She says that although the views she expresses here are personal opinion, she is not an accused nor an accuser, not a therapist nor a plaintiff in a malpractice case, and she hopes the questions she raises may further some of the debate about these issues.

The opinions below are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

In a criminal suit the standard of proof is higher than in a civil suit: beyond a reasonable doubt. In a fraud case specifically, the prosecution must make a very good case for two things: 1) That the defendants knew or ought to have known that they were performing illegal acts; and, 2) That these acts were motivated or intentional.

In the Houston courtroom where Mary Shanley is now testifying as a witness for prosecution we are hearing dramatic reports of her treatment under the defendants and the co-conspirators. She has testified, for instance, that she was sent from Chicago to Houston without knowing her destination and without an opportunity to say good-bye to her husband and son, that she was put in restraints nearly 100 times, that the injuries she sustained from being in restraints at one time had her in a wheelchair. She has reported that she was heavily dosed with drugs, that her telephone calls -- even to her husband -- were monitored, that her therapists prevented her from treating an abscessed tooth in a timely fashion and that she lost several teeth as a result. She says that her therapists became angry and punitive if she did not go on producing endless memories of her alleged experiences in a satanic cult and was not forthcoming with equally unending "alters" that made up her "multiple personality"..... The testimony is relentless, horrifying, bizarre, often unbelievable. It makes a point that the treatment was severe and that it did incalculable damage to Shanley, including ending her marriage and alienating her from her son. And it sure makes good newspaper copy. But it should not overwhelm the issues.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Eastepp is leading Shanley through her testimony. As he does this, he sets Shanley’s testimony against other evidence that apparently corroborates her testimony. There are her medical records which record that, for instance, Shanley at one time did weigh under 100 pounds, that she was indeed in a wheelchair, that her tooth was infected or that she worried about losing her family. Eastepp’s process is also bringing out the fact that Shanley and her therapists had radically different interpretations of what was going on. The therapists who saw Shanley as fifth generation royalty in a satanic cult, a child abuser, a murderer and, as one therapist said, "the most evil person I have ever met," may have been mistaken -- but were they malicious? Some observers, noting how consistent the therapists were in their treatment of Shanley have said , "They really sound as though they believe this."

And so we come to this question: "How do you tell a true believer from a liar?" And I offer up my opinion on this. It’s only my opinion, but it is a considered one...

You see, I think a true believer, no matter how mistaken, is generally pretty consistent. The true believer’s story doesn’t change from one person to another or from one venue to another. You can look and look hard, but you can’t really see much activity to tailor the story for one audience or another. The true believer’s story is the true believer’s story and that’s about it. The true believer’s story -- or the behaviors that arise from it -- may prove harmful to someone. But they are not intentional.

Now a liar? Well, a liar is a different case. If you look long and hard at a liar you will see that the liar’s story changes and you can usually see a pattern. If you watch closely when it changes and how, you can often hazard a good guess about the liar’s agenda. And the liar usually does have an agenda. In her thoughtful book, Lying, moral philosopher Sissela Bok came down saying that the real sin in lying is that it is an effort to control someone’s else’s life. This is done by causing that person to organize his or her behavior around misinformation. And that usually serves the ends of the liar in some way or another. The liar, in other words, has intent and motivation.

So the discrepancies between Mary Shanley’s testimony and that of the defendants? -- well that tells me some things. Mostly it tells me that there was a big difference in the way the two sides of the courtroom see things, but that’s not much of a surprise. When you add in some third-party testimony or written medical records, that tends to bend me in one direction or the other in terms of credibility. But it’s when the same parties tell different stories to different people under different circumstances that I start to get real interested.

Mary Shanley’s story comes at the beginning of this trial. There are hours and weeks of testimony to go and I suspect some of the most important testimony will come in when some of the nursing and accounting staff testify. The indictment serves notice of an intent to demonstrate that the defendants, among other things, directed lower level medical staff to alter medical records for insurance purposes, and instructed accounting staff to pay the premiums of some patients in order to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims against those policies. That begins to look a lot like intent. And if you follow the money, well, you might end up tickling motivation too. If the prosecution can make a case on these that will be a challenge to the defense.

But some things are starting to look interesting already. The records are showing the defendants denied using restraints or hypnosis. I dunno, but wouldn’t you think that takes some kind of awareness? Could you at least begin to form a working hypothesis around something like that? There’s something else that is curious: Why would the defendants manipulate Shanley’s concern for the welfare of her child if they honestly thought she was "evil" -- that she wanted to harm him? Those are just a few questions hanging out there.

Now if the defense does its job it’s going to try to discredit Mary Shanley. The defense is going to try to say that Shanley arrived at Spring Shadows Glen already convinced she was a satanist. It’s going to say that Shanley was a pretty sick puppy before she crossed the threshold. It’s going to demonstrate that if Shanley sometimes resisted treatment the records also show times when Shanley herself said she was a satanist or tried to map out elaborate systems of "alters." It’s going to try to show, in other words, that Mary Shanley isn’t consistent or reliable. either. And then who do you believe?

Well, who had more control here? That’s a good question. And what would Mary Shanley have been trying to gain with her inconsistencies? By contrast, what might the defendants have gained? Motivation and intent....awareness, motivation and intent. Watch for the awareness, motivation and intent. It’s one of the hardest things to follow or to prove, but it’s critical.

Spencer Harris Morfit

What About Professional Standards? -- another commentary by Spencer H. Morfit.

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