April 14, 2010

Kot’s Defense Blames Murder On Medication

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The prosecution in Blazej Kot’s murder trial cross-examined a psychiatrist on Wednesday, who discussed how a medication Kot used before his wife’s death may have exacerbated his mental illness.As the prosecution cross-examined Dr. Rory Houghtalen Wednesday, the psychiatrist continued to paint a picture of Blazej Kot as a “cornered animal” suffering from “tremendous fear and anxiety.”

Houghtalen has spent the past few trial sessions explaining why he blames Blazej Kot’s murder of his wife on a substance-induced mental disorder. But the prosecution challenged this diagnosis Wednesday in a terse, often sharp exchange that lacked a clear focus.

Houghtalen testified that chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, either caused or exacerbated Kot’s symptoms of mental illness, driving him to kill his wife in the belief that it would help him escape “impending doom.” A nurse at Gannett  Health Center prescribed the drug as a preventive measure before Kot went to Costa Rica for his wedding ceremony last April.

In some patients, chloroquine becomes highly concentrated in brain tissue, causing psychotic symptoms. Kot took his first 500 mg dose on Apr. 22, 2009, and began to feel delusions after returning to work on May 11, corresponding to Houghtalen’s claim that chloroquine side effects begin after two grams have been ingested. He took his last dose on May 31 and killed his wife three days later.

“Kot’s moment of crystallized thought — that his wife was in fact an agent of prosecution and the only way to escape from this was through her death —coincided with the peak of chloroquine concentration,” Houghtalen said.

In an attempt to cast doubt on Houghtalen’s diagnosis, the prosecution emphasized the rarity of chloroquine-induced psychosis. Only 150 cases have ever been reported, and no official clinical trial has linked chloroquine to mental disorders.

“There are no chloroquine-induced psychotic killers anywhere in the U.S.,” Assistant District Attorney Andrew McElwee said.

McElwee also challenged Houghtalen’s methodology. The psychiatrist diagnosed Kot with schizotypal personality disorder based on five symptoms that are hallmarks of the disorder: excessive social anxiety, a lack of close friends, suspiciousness, unusual perceptual experiences and odd or magical beliefs. McElwee said most of these symptoms “came from Kot’s post-crime statements,” suggesting that the defendant could have been faking them.

Houghtalen disputed this claim, emphasizing that he also interviewed Kot’s friends, relatives and colleagues about his behavior. To decide if Kot suffered from excessive social anxiety, for instance, Houghtalen spoke to Kot’s parents, who “talked about his hesitancy around people and situations he was unfamiliar with.”

McElwee then called into question whether Kot really lacked close friends.

“We heard from Kot’s friends, didn’t we?” he said.

“We also heard about how shallow some of those friendships were,” Houghtalen countered. Although people with the disorder still have friends, he said, they have trouble forming close attachments.

In an attempt to cast doubt on the defense’s claim that Kot felt his wife was part of a vast conspiracy, McElwee showed several video clips where Kot never used the word “agent” and followed each clip with a rhetorical question.

“In that clip … he never told you that there were agents surveilling him, isn’t that right?” McElwee asked, cutting the psychiatrist off when he tried to give an answer.

In another clip, Houghtalen asked Kot what he’d thought killing Coffey would solve.

“His answer didn’t include anything about stopping agents, did it?” McElwee asked.

McElwee also suggested that Houghtalen took up the case for financial motives. The psychiatrist makes $300 an hour for interviewing defendants like Kot; so far in this case he has earned about $30,000.

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen