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Experts clash over killer's mental state

Friday, June 12, 1998

By Jon Schmitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A psychiatrist testified yesterday that Michale Anderson lacked the mental capacity to commit premeditated murder when he stabbed and strangled Karen Hurwitz, 17, of Squirrel Hill in 1989.

Another psychiatrist followed him to the stand to dispute the assertion.

The testimony corrected an 8-year-old mistake that caused Anderson's first-degree murder conviction to be tossed out, and forced Hurwitz's loved ones to relive the ordeal of her death in a second trial.

Anderson was convicted in June 1990, but state Superior Court ruled that he was not given effective legal representation because his former attorney, Jon Botula, did not call a psychiatrist to testify.

Botula had sought a postponement of the trial to obtain psychiatric testimony, but was turned down by the original trial judge, Robert E. Dauer.

Yesterday, Dr. Robert M. Wettstein of Shadyside testified that Anderson "lost touch with reality" before killing Hurwitz in the back yard of her home.

He said Anderson experienced hallucinations and "perceptual distortions" that distracted him and interfered with his ability to form an intent to kill Hurwitz.

If the jury accepts the testimony, Anderson would be spared a life sentence that is automatic with a first-degree murder conviction.

But a second psychiatrist, called by the prosecution, disputed Wettstein's conclusions.

Dr. Michael Welner of New York said there was abundant evidence that Anderson was fully aware of what he was doing.

He planned his actions, concealed the murder weapon and tried to prepare an alibi, he said.

Welner challenged the notion that Anderson could have suffered mental incapacity in the moments or hours that framed the killing.

"Mental illness is not a clap-on, clap-off phenomenon," he said.

He said Anderson, in a handwritten confession, said he had "readied his weapons" while at a library in Squirrel Hill shortly before going to Hurwitz's house.

Anderson, also 17 at the time, had been Hurwitz's friend.

He called her at 1:30 a.m. on the day of the killing and asked to meet with her.

When he entered the home, he left a 25-inch martial arts sword outside, police said.

When the two went outside to talk, he retrieved the sword and, without provocation, attacked Hurwitz, stabbing her repeatedly and choking her.

A set of nunchucks -- two plastic rods connected by a chain -- was found nearby and may have been used by Anderson to beat and choke the victim, police said.

Yesterday, the fourth day of the retrial before Judge Lawrence J. O'Toole, was consumed by the testimony of the opposing psychiatrists.

To prepare, each spent hours talking to Anderson and reviewed voluminous records of his psychiatric history and of the killing.

Yet they reached different conclusions.

Wettstein said Anderson told him of strange feelings in the time before and during the killing.

Anderson felt an "exaggerated sense of reality" and his surroundings, Wettstein said.

Anderson told Wettstein that a gazebo in the Hurwitz yard changed shapes. He heard whispers. When he touched the sword, it felt bigger than it was.

During the killing, Anderson "had a sense of being in a dream, of being somewhere else," Wettstein said.

Questioned by defense attorney Diane Barr Quinlin, Wettstein said:

"It's always important in these cases to consider whether the defendant is trying to fool you. That was in the forefront of my mind. I don't think Michale was trying to fool me."

He said Anderson suffered from bipolar disorder, which brings profound mood swings, from euphoria to depression.

Welner said Anderson's actions were inconsistent with such a diagnosis.

He said victims of the disorder committed violent acts only when provoked.

"Something pushes their button. They aren't predatory. They don't attack a defenseless person."

Testimony in the case may finish today.

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