DSM Plays a Starring Role in Murder Trial

The high-profile Jodi Arias trial has mental health and treatment professionals taking notice. As the proceedings wrap up, there has been much discussion about the DSM. Its formal name is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The latest version of this “mental health bible,” the DSM-IV-TR (fourth edition, text revision), is used by professionals to properly diagnose a variety of disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, anxiety and addiction. It provides clear criteria for a variety of mental health issues and is the accepted standard used in the mental health field.

The DSM became a topic of much interest prior to closing arguments in the Arias trial. The defendant is accused of killing her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander. After four months of testimony Arias’s defense attorneys took one final opportunity to convince the jury that their client was in an abusive relationship and was forced to kill Alexander in self-defense. To do this Arias’s attorneys called psychologist and neuropsychologist Robert Geffner to the stand to refute psychologist Janeen DeMarte’s testimony.

DeMarte testified during prosecutor Juan Martinez’s rebuttal case that she did not believe the defense’s argument that Alexander abused Arias. She also disagreed with the defense’s assertion that Arias can’t remember the details of the killing because she suffers from PTSD. DeMarte offered her own diagnosis of the defendant saying that Arias suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The BPD diagnosis contradicts the PTSD diagnosis. It is problematic at this point in the trial, because the defense attorneys claim Martinez failed to present any evidence that Arias has a personality disorder. Geffner testified Wednesday that Arias’s psychological test results support a diagnosis of PTSD instead of a personality disorder.

During this last-minute maneuvering there were detailed discussions about the DSM-IV, the revised DSM-IV-TR and the upcoming DSM-V. Attorneys questioned what the DSM is, how familiar expert witnesses were with the reference manual and when the various version were published.

During the final days of the trial there was discussion about whether Arias was truthful when answering questions during the test used to determine whether or not she suffers from PTSD. Hayes said that the results of psychological tests Arias took are not enough to form a diagnosis adding that a psychologist would need to evaluate the client and consider other evidence.

The DSM criteria for PTSD states that a person has to be involved in an event that causes them to experience intense helplessness or horror in which they feel like their lives or the lives of others might be at risk. A PTSD diagnosis could be the difference between life in prison or a lighter sentence for Arias.  

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