On Wednesday, Dec. 5, psychologist Michele Godwin walked into Albrecht Muth’s room in Ward 9 of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the District’s public psychiatric unit. Over the previous two days, both of them had sat through roughly 12 hours of testimony in D.C. Superior Court about whether or not Muth is competent to stand trial for murder, and Godwin wanted to know how he felt.
Muth told her that he thought his defense team, who had been arguing that he is not competent to stand trial, were doing a good job. Too good a job, maybe, because they seemed to be effectively arguing that he is incompetent and he disagreed.
“He believes the side that says he is competent [the prosecution] will not prevail and that does not make him happy,” Godwin testified in court the following week.
Muth, doctors say, is adamant in his assertion that he is mentally competent and that he wishes to represent himself at trial. But he’s just as adamant that he is an East German spy, a brigadier general in the Iraqi Army, and that the murder of his 91-year-old wife, Viola Drath, for which he has been charged, was an Iranian attempt to assassinate him that went awry.
And therein lies the complicated, confusing, and often convoluted set of facts at the heart of Muth’s mental competency hearing, which lasted more than 35 hours and finally came to an end—though not yet a conclusion—on Wednesday.
What Judge Russell Canan must now decide is whether Muth’s fundamentally unbelievable belief about his military and intelligence credentials is a psychotic delusion that prevents him from being able to rationally assist in his own defense or a volitional manipulation that he could turn off but doesn’t want to because he thrives on the notoriety and the attention he’s received.
During the exhaustive and often exhausting hearing, which stretched over eight days—longer than some murder trials—the government and defense called six expert witnesses and one non-expert to testify about Muth’s mental health. It was almost as if this hearing was a substitute for the trial itself—except that there was very little talk about Viola Drath and almost none about the circumstances of her murder on August 12, 2011 in the Q Street Georgetown townhouse she and Muth shared.
Muth was arrested in August 2011, four days after Drath was found dead on the bathroom floor in their home. At first, her death at the age of 91 was assumed to be accidental. But an autopsy found abrasions on her neck and scalp, fractured neck cartilage and ribs, and bruising. Drath, medical examiners concluded, had been killed. Her cause of death: strangulation and blunt force trauma. Manner of death: homicide. Her husband, detectives said, was the prime suspect.
From the beginning, Muth maintained his innocence. In an interview with police after his arrest, he said he was out with a friend the evening of Aug. 11 and returned home at about 9:45 p.m. He spent a few hours checking his email in his study, and then went to sleep in the basement, where it was cooler that hot August night. He said he didn’t come into contact with Drath until the next morning, after he returned from a walk about 8:00 a.m.
He told detectives that it must have been an intruder who killed his wife. “It wasn’t an accident,” he told them.
Months later, at a status hearing on Nov. 18, Muth argued that Drath’s murder was an Iranian assassination attempt, a theory he has held on to since.
At that hearing, Muth successfully petitioned the court to allow him to defend himself. In a seven-page handwritten letter to the court, he argued point by point against the government’s assertion that he was not a member of the Iraqi diplomatic mission nor a representative of Iraq. He insisted that he was, saying that his interactions with “the U.S. govt., White House, Department of Defense, Congress were ‘officially unofficial,’ external to official channels,” he wrote.
“I cannot, I’m afraid, go into the sensitive aspects of my world,” he added.
The day after the hearing, Muth began an extended fast, which lasted more than two months. He has since told doctors that the fasts (he fasted again in July and August) were at the urging of the archangel Gabriel, who appeared to him in a vision. He was hospitalized twice in early February, and after the second time, Judge Canan ruled that he was incapable of defending himself.
“It is not the intent of the court to deprive him of his right [to represent himself], but the court feels it has no other option,” Canan said.
On Feb. 14, Canan ruled that Muth was incompetent to stand trial and ordered him to be admitted to Saint Elizabeths Hospital for a 30-day psychiatric evaluation. He has been at Saint Elizabeths ever since.
There are a few things about Muth that most everyone agrees upon. First, that he is not actually an Iraqi Army officer or a German spy. Second, that he is “bright”—a word that several experts used to describe him, even those who believe he is mentally ill—and sly. Proof of his cunning: he has convinced more than a few people of his military credentials, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, according to testimony in court.
Most everyone also agrees that Muth factually understands the charges against him and the court process, which is one of the critical requirements to stand trial.
But the agreement pretty much ends there. As “bright” as medical experts say he is, it’s not clear whether Muth can rationally understand the proceedings and assist with counsel in his defense. And if the court finds that Muth can not, then he can not be subject to trial in his wife’s death.
Muth’s defense team has urged Judge Canan to find him incompetent. At the hearing their experts testified Muth suffers from a delusional disorder and sub-average intelligence and can’t rationally consider multiple defense strategies. The government has argued that Muth is competent, an assertion Muth agrees with. The government’s experts testified that Muth is an extreme narcissist with above-intelligence whose mere vanity drives his lies and manipulations.
These contradictory reports are part of a long series of diagnoses since Muth was arrested. Even the doctors who have been treating Muth at Saint Elizabeths—and whose most recent report concluded that he was competent to stand trial—have changed their minds several times about Muth’s mental state.
Shortly after he arrived at Saint Elizabeths on Feb. 15, Muth was diagnosed with psychotic disorder not otherwise specified. In April, doctors changed his diagnosis to delusional disorder and schizotypal personality disorder. Doctors changed his diagnosis again on July 30, settling on their current diagnosis: factitious disorder, meaning that he fabricates or exaggerates certain physical and psychological symptoms for secondary gain; personality disorder with narcissistic, antisocial and schizotypal personality traits; and alcohol abuse.
Godwin, the clinical psychologist at Saint Elizabeths who oversees Muth’s treatment and wrote the hospital’s reports to the court, testified that the changing diagnoses resulted from new information she and her team received, including from an interview with Viola Drath’s daughter and grandson.
“We’ve had a greater longitudinal time to observe him,” Godwin said, when Judge Canan pressed her from the bench about the earlier diagnoses. “We’ve observed changes in his behavior when we informed him of changes in his diagnosis. And we’ve received new information from collateral interviews.”
“You have to know someone for a longer time to know who they really are,” she added.
But Godwin also cautioned against reading too much into a psychological diagnosis when trying to determine whether Muth is competent to stand trial.
“The diagnoses are in the report because they reflect the treatment team’s best working diagnosis for how to make him better,” she said. “That is different from what we are talking about today in terms of competency.”
Prosecution and defense mental health experts spent dozens of hours interviewing Muth. They administered psychological, intelligence and personality tests, and they read hundreds of pages of relevant material, including the other experts’ reports. On the stand, they refuted one another’s claims and challenged one another’s methods, giving contradicting testimony about the efficacy of specific tests and screenings at accurately measuring intellectual ability or detecting processes such as malingering—faking psychological symptoms for secondary gain, such as being found incompetent to stand trial.
Of the six experts who testified at the mental health hearing, three said they believe Muth is competent to stand trial, two said that he is incompetent, and one expert, who was brought in by the defense to do psychological testing but was not asked to make a determination on competency, said he didn’t have an opinion.
Stephen Lally, a clinical psychologist who used to work at Saint Elizabeths but now runs a private practice, testified on Tuesday for the defense. He said Muth’s incompetency stems from a delusional disorder that prevents him from seeing the trial as anything other than a forum for proving his credentials as an Iraqi general.
“Mr. Muth believes that fundamentally what is at the center of his trial is the validity of his delusion—although he doesn’t call it a delusion, of course,” Lally said.
Lally said that Muth doesn’t care if he’s found guilty, making it impossible for him to rationally assist in his own defense.
But Dr. Robert Phillips, a forensic and clinical psychiatrist from Annapolis who testified for the government, said Muth’s assertion that he is an Iraqi general is no different from the many other lies he has told over the years to bolster his influence. In 2002, Muth began using the name Count Albi and even created a story for how he received the title, which he admitted to all of the doctors who interviewed him was a fabrication intended to make people take him more seriously.
“He knows exactly how to get what he wants and will manipulate his environment through misrepresentations to further his goals,” Phillips testified.
On Tuesday, Prosecutor Glenn Kirschner asked Lally if Muth’s theory that Iranian assassins killed his wife might actually be possible.
“Might some people have thought he was an Iraqi general?” Kirschner asked.
“Some people did,” Lally replied.
“Might some of those people have had anti-Iraqi sentiment?”
“Might some of them have wanted to retaliate against him because they perceived him to be an Iraqi general?”
“Hypothetically, yes,” said Lally.
On Wednesday, Muth sat in his usual spot in the courtroom behind the three defense attorneys whom he says he can’t work with. He wore the same brown sweater and navy sweatpants that he wore every day of the hearing, which stretched over the course of three weeks.
Muth nodded in apparent agreement when Kirschner recounted Muth’s comments to one of the doctors that he thought the government’s “odds are about 60-40” that he would be found competent to stand trial.
Muth has told doctors that, should he be allowed to proceed with his own defense, he plans to subpoena former General David Petraeus and other officials and dignitaries to testify to his credentials as an Iraqi brigadier general.
“General Petraeus is a key witness in this case and now he is a private citizen,” Muth told one of the doctors in November. “If Judge Canan quashes the subpoena, then we’ll see about the quality of American justice.”
Prosecutors have argued that this is proof Muth has a factual understanding of the legal system and the power of subpoenas. The defense team says it is further evidence of the extent of Muth’s delusion.
“I don’t know for sure, but I doubt General Petraeus will say that [Muth is an Iraqi general], if he tells the truth,” defense attorney Dana Page said in her arguments.
Exactly how the case proceeds is expected to be decided Thursday at 10 a.m., when Judge Canan is expected to announce his decision. If he finds Muth to be incompetent, he may refer him to continued psychiatric treatment at Saint Elizabeths until—and if—competency can be restored.
But if Judge Canan deems Muth to be competent to stand trial, the next question would likely be whether or not he is also competent to defend himself at that trial, which is scheduled to begin March 25. During his closing arguments Wednesday, Kirschner signaled the government’s willingness to allow Muth to go forward representing himself.
“We all know that self-representation is the lifeblood of the law,” Kirschner said. “And if he is competent to do so, we know that the case law is unforgiving if we deny him that right.”