As sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo stands trial this week, his insanity defense relies on a controversial claim rarely heard in courtrooms: The defendant was brainwashed to kill.
But whether Malvo is a "Manchurian Candidate" sniper or a coldblooded killer who acted on his own volition is a question that ventures into complicated territory -- that of the human mind and an often bitter three-decade debate over the validity of brainwashing.
In the courtroom of public opinion, the word "brainwashing" has a dramatic history. There, it recalls the blank stares and swastika-carved foreheads of Manson family murderers, the gruesome scene of 912 bodies after the mass suicide at Jonestown 25 years ago last Tuesday and the mass suicide by Heaven's Gate members, convinced that by killing themselves they would rejoin their alien kin on a spaceship heading home.
The word is still used to explain incomprehensible behavior today. When Islamic extremists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some speculated brainwashing. The mother of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and the father of American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh said their sons were brainwashed. When kidnapped Elizabeth Smart was reported to have strangely complied with her abductors, her father said she had been brainwashed.
But social scientists and legal scholars are split over whether brainwashing is junk science or a real phenomenon.
"A pseudo-scientific myth," says psychologist Dick Anthony, a leading opponent of brainwashing theories.
"The concept can be wrongly exaggerated and equally wrongly denied," counters psychiatrist Robert Lifton, a pioneer of mind control research.
Newspaper journalist Edward Hunter coined the term during the Korean War to describe mind control used on American POWs who defected to Korea and China. In his 1956 book "Brain-Washing," Hunter, later revealed to be a CIA propagandist, described "a system of befogging the brain so a person can be seduced into acceptance of what otherwise would be abhorrent to him." Psychiatrist Robert Lifton, one of a team of U.S. researchers who were the first to interview POWS in China, soon after concluded that the Chinese used a systematic process of "coercive persuasion" that involves specific elements: complete control over information and environment, manipulation to erode self-expression, criticism and degradation, confession, discipline, peer pressure, renunciation of values, and coercion by physical force and threat.
"What I studied in Chinese thought reform is very real and brought about real changes in human beings," says Lifton, now a visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His 1961 book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism" is considered the bible of brainwashing science.
But Lifton doesn't like the word "brainwashing." It's overburdened with misconceptions, he says, and brings to mind the 1962 movie "The Manchurian Candidate," which dramatized the idea of a robotic assassin. He prefers "thought reform."
Not surprisingly, the greatest body of clinical brainwashing study was done by scientists under the cloak of the CIA -- some of it attempting to create the hypnotic courier and trance-state bomber. From 1950 into the early '70s, the CIA-funded mind-control projects used drugs, electric shock, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, psychological tricks, even electrode brain implants, according to Freedom of Information Act investigations and declassified documents.
Almost no clinical studies like those have been done openly, because of ethics and legal consequences. Facing congressional investigations, the CIA in 1973 acknowledged it had experimented with brainwashing, found it didn't work, and destroyed its research records.
Opponents of brainwashing theory say the CIA's admission is evidence that brainwashing is nonsense; proponents say that if you believe that, they've got a bridge in Brooklyn. Yet not much controversy tailed brainwashing until it appeared in the legal arena.
The watershed brainwashing-made-me-do-it defense was the 1976 trial of publishing-fortune heiress Patty Hearst. Kidnapped by Symbionese Liberation Army revolutionaries, the 19-year-old Hearst was held for two months, kept naked in a closet, tortured and raped, and indoctrinated in SLA politics -- before joining her captors as a machine-gun-toting, bank-robbing urban guerrilla.
Her lawyers claimed she was brainwashed. But the term "Stockholm syndrome" -- when a captive bonds with the captors -- had not yet gained currency, and Jonestown was two years away. The jury found her guilty.
James T. Richardson, professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, believes there are rational explanations for why Patty Hearst joined her captors -- fear, coercion, survival strategy -- but brainwashing is not one of them. "You don't really need some black-box, magical term to understand what happened," he says, "but that case convinced a lot of people these kinds of techniques exist."
So did the emergence of cults and new religious groups. In the '70s and '80s, former members sued organizations such as the Unification Church and Scientologists, claiming brainwashing even though there was no physical coercion. After an early run of courtroom victories for the plaintiffs, the other side trumped the debate, convincing the courts that noncoercive brainwashing could not be proved. While the plaintiffs argued that the members lost their free will, making the groups legally liable, the defense lawyers pointed out that the groups did not engage in coercion, one of the factors Lifton said must be present for brainwashing to occur. Pointing out that new brainwashing theory relied primarily on interviews, not clinical studies, the groups' experts demanded: "Where's the science?"
Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist based near Berkeley, Calif., and co-author of "In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America," spearheaded the effort to brand brainwashing testimony as bunk. "No reasonable person would question that there are situations where people can be influenced against their best interests," he says, "but those arguments are evaluated on the basis of fact, not bogus expert testimony."
By the 1990 case U.S. v. Fishman, in which the defendant pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to mail fraud charges, alleging Scientology brainwashed him into committing crimes, the judge dismissed brainwashing testimony outright as unscientific and inadmissible. Brainwashing has been a hard case to crack in court since. But Alan Scheflin, professor of law at Santa Clara University and author of the 1989 book "Trance on Trial," says there's been plenty of research on the power of human susceptibility, group mores and subjection to hypnotism, isolation, sensory deprivation and obedience training -- all elements of brainwashing.
Scheflin cites studies in the '50s at Yale that showed people would ignore clear-cut fact to conform to a group lie and '70s studies proving how easy it is to manipulate people with authoritative commands. "We know that people can be influenced, we know they can be unduly influenced, we know they can be unduly indoctrinated," says Scheflin. "What's the problem?"
Rutgers University sociologist Benjamin Zablocki complains that the cult/religious group litigations stopped further scientific inquiry into brainwashing at a time when it might have shed light on the mental state of terrorists. Court cases require black-and-white thinking, either/or analysis, he says, while "scientists are supposed to try to get to the truth by seeing all the nuances and complexities of what actually goes on."
Discredited or not, brainwashing was making a courtroom comeback even before Malvo's lawyers attracted national attention.
Richardson says the idea is showing up more often in family court and custody battles, where one parent is accused of brainwashing the child to reject the other parent, and in child sex abuse cases where one parent is accused of brainwashing the child to make sex abuse accusations against the other parent, "with some success."
In Massachusetts, lawyers for second-degree murder suspect Karen Robidoux, a member of an authoritarian religious sect for 10 years, are arguing that she starved her 1-year-old son to death because she was brainwashed and thought she was fulfilling a vision from God. Her attorney claims she was "controlled, manipulated, oppressed and threatened," and refers to her conditioning as "mental slavery."
Malvo's case -- an insanity defense that blames brainwashing? "Can you win with a brainwashing defense? If you do, you'll be making new law," says Scheflin.
Kerry Noble, a former member of a right-wing religious hate group, says he doesn't know much about Malvo but believes brainwashing could certainly have led a person to kill. In 1984, Noble carried a briefcase filled with explosives into a service at a gay church in Kansas City, Mo., intending to blow it up. He says he was acting under the influence of brainwashing after seven years in the Covenant, Sword and the Arm of the Lord.
"All the normal thinking processes about what's right and what's wrong were gone," says Noble, who recounted his story in his 1998 book "Tabernacle of Hate." But while sitting in the church to avoid suspicion, he saw the humanity there and left with the bomb, says Noble, who spent seven years in prison on firearms charges.
Malvo pulled the trigger instead of walking away. "Was there a greater cause?" Noble asks of Malvo's motives. "If so, you believe that God is in control and nothing you do is wrong."
But the verdict comes down to what the jury believes, says Philip Zimbardo, psychology professor at Stanford University.
"How do you get somebody to step across that line between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?" says the former president of the American Psychological Association. "Brains don't get washed, but extreme forms of social influence happen all the time. Coercive persuasion? Sure it exists. But juries find it hard to believe. Nobody wants to believe human nature is so pliable."