Interview with Forensic Psychiatrist Michael Welner, M.D.: Part One

by Shannon on February 9, 2011

Dr. Welner Shares In-Depth Reflections on the Richard Baumhammers Case and How to Develop a Career in Forensic Psychiatry

Michael Welner, M.D., a renowned forensic psychiatrist, is often asked to provide expert analysis of complex and cutting edge cases such as that of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper and Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr. He is the founder and Chairman of The Forensic Panel, which introduced peer-reviewed oversight in a national forensic science practice. Constantly innovating in the field, he strives to create and upgrade protocols such as his efforts with the Depravity Standard to establish an evidence-based measure for the worst of crimes. He is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at NYU’s School of Medicine, an Adjunct Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law, and a consultant to ABC News and frequent Good Morning America contributor.

You analyzed the insanity defense claims of Richard Baumhammers, an unemployed lawyer who killed six people of different ethnicities during a shooting spree in Pittsburgh in 2000. At his trial, you diagnosed him with delusional disorder, but distinguished it from the choices he made. How does that fit the paradigm of a mass shooter?

Richard Baumhammers had delusional disorder. He was a low functioning son of two dentists who had graduated law school but never practiced to any meaningful degree as a professional. Like mass shooters before him and since, Baumhammers had high expectations of himself, but could never launch and was burdened by reminders of his disappointing prospects. At some point he fashioned an anti-immigration agenda and began positioning himself for a political career. But he was a social incompetent who could draw no one to his political party, and lived off his parents. He lived with his parents and would pay escorts to come and merely sit with him. He vacationed in Asia, where sexual gratification is only a greenback away. The anticlimactic trigger preceding his decision to embark on the shooting was a prospective date who cancelled on him.

Baumhammers killed his longtime Jewish neighbor, scrawled swastikas on a nearby synagogue, then drove to a Chinese restaurant and shot and killed two, then drove to an Indian grocery where he shot and killed one and paralyzed a second man who later died. He then drove to a karate studio and killed a black man there. In Pittsburgh, where I grew up, you have to go out of your way to target non-white multi-ethnicities. The question became, how could this son of parents who had patients from a variety of cultures carry out a crime with the earmarks of hatred unless his illness was driving it?

My journey led me to closely investigate the Latvian background of Baumhammers’ older parents, who characterized themselves to the press as World War II refugees. Ultimately, I learned that his family had in fact exceptionally thrived during the Nazi occupation that witnessed the extermination of over 90% of Latvia’s Jews. Baumhammers actually descended from the youngest Supreme Court judge ever in Latvia – a Nazi appointee. The picture came into clearer focus with history that Baumhamers had burned a cross on a black neighbor’s lawn when he was a teenager, and long before anyone contemplated that he had mental illness.

When I studied his internet traffic prior to the shootings, I found that he had been visiting white supremacist websites. He was attempting to form online romances with like-minded women such as “Aryan Princess.” Baumhammers’ hatred and xenophobia ultimately came into clearer understanding as a passion of his that had been nurtured over many years and likely over generations. Delusional disorder was a real part of his life, but so was his xenophobic ideology.

What motivates people like Richard Baumhammers to shoot and kill people indiscriminately?

Mass shooting is carried out by a man who wants to create a spectacle and draw attention to himself. The shooter is a person of high personal expectations who recognizes that his life is going nowhere and never will. Schizophrenia is common in mass shooters, as is great difficulty coping with the diagnosis and the personal shame of having a condition that affects one’s function, sociability, and potential. However, most mass shooters do not have schizophrenia; it is the expectations of how the community will respond that drives the spectacle crime.

Mass shooters are invariably sexual incompetents and social losers. The despair they feel over the sense of being a sexual outcast is overpowering. When their escape from their own disconnect includes guns or other violent imagery or entertainment, mass shooters are those who identify destruction with a sense of power and manhood. The news and entertainment media’s role in making mass shooters larger than life reinforces the perverse stature attributed to destructiveness.

Paranoia is also a key element in mass shooting. A person who recognizes he does not fit in becomes progressively alienated from more and more of his community. The risk for violent cataclysm grows the more the person becomes invested in that alienation. For mass shooters, alienation progresses to contempt. Contempt is a necessary ingredient to power righteous indignation – the feeling that victims deserve to die. This is why mass shooting is such an exceptional event relative to the number of people who may fantasize about it. You have to hate everyone to kill anyone.

The more distinctive component to Richard Baumhammers’ mass shooting was his ideology. As it happens, Buford Furrow and Naveed Haq being examples, ideological mass shooters are typically unaffiliated and have only tenuous history within hate organizations such as the white supremacist or anti-secular Muslim organizations. They are social wannabees within these hate groups just as they are social failures otherwise. The spectacle crime pushes them to the spotlight of respect among others who may do no more than promote hate literature or raise funding, yet are quietly delighted when they learn of the bloodbath one man can create.

Joseph Paul Franklin, whom I also interviewed, took it upon himself to kill as many as he could in mixed-race relationships. He murdered well over 20 and could have killed scores more if devious plots to blow up a synagogue and to poison thousands of Chicagoans were successful. He prided himself in the spectacle he created that even leaders of Aryan Nation could not.

Is there a common educational path you suggest and if so, why?

You have to get educated in what fascinates you and what will keep you up at night reading and researching. My best advice to training students is to train up in your passion; inhale it, inhabit it, and sit in the front row of life. If you then just concentrate on performing your techniques as well as possible, you will figure out how to develop a nice career for yourself within forensics.

I know medicine from my own experience and recommend it to all. Medical school is four years but that time goes quickly and you grow up in the best of ways. The flexibility for career development and contributions to society that a physician has are enormous.

Read Part 2 of Dr. Welner’s Interview
Read Part 3 of Dr. Welner’s Interview

Page updated on February 9, 2011.

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