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Expert Witnesses Testify To Jeremy Christian's Mental Functioning

<p>Jeremy Christian in court Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Expert witnesses testified about their analyses of Christian's mental health and functioning.</p>
<p>Jeremy Christian in court Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Expert witnesses testified about their analyses of Christian's mental health and functioning.</p>

The Big Picture

Jeremy Christian is accused of killing two people and injuring a third in a stabbing attack on a MAX light rail train in Portland in May 2017. 

Last week, witnesses testified that Christian was shouting racist comments while two black teenage girls — Walia Mohamed and Destinee Mangum — were nearby on the train. Mohamed is Muslim and was wearing a hijab.

Christian faces intimidation charges in regards to the two girls.

Christian is also accused of harassing and assaulting Demetria Hester, an African American woman, on another MAX train the day prior.

He faces a dozen felony and misdemeanor charges, including multiple counts of first-degree murder and intimidation.

The Highlights (What Happened Tuesday)

The defense continued presenting its case Tuesday, calling a witness whose testimony focused on Christian’s brain and cognitive functioning.

The defense called Dr. Glena Andrews, a neuropsychologist who teaches at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.

Andrews did a neuropsychological evaluation of Christian for the trial.

“What I learned is that Jeremy has what we call executive functioning dysfunction, so his frontal lobes and his connectivity, how his brain works to make decisions, to function in the world, to assess his surroundings, is not where we would expect it to be,” Andrews said.

She said executive functioning dysfunction does not have a clinical diagnosis — meaning it isn’t recognized as a specific disorder.

Andrews interviewed Christian on two separate days when he was in jail. She said she conducted multiple tests of Christian’s intellectual functioning and memory, and that some of his test scores fell below the normal range.

“His intellectual [functioning] overall was at the normal levels and yet there are some areas where he has more struggles than most people,” Andrews said.

For example, she said, when she asked him to define words, he did fine, but when asking him to compare and contrast words, looking for similarities, “he’s unable to do that at the level that’s considered in the normal range,” Andrews said.

In regards to memory, Andrews said: “If I told him a relatively short story, a paragraph, he doesn’t remember the details as well as most people in his age group.”

She also said Christian had some visual and spatial difficulties.

“His ability to observe or pay attention to his surroundings are in some cases in a deficit range,” Andrews said.

Andrews said she believes Christian has had these deficits and impairment since birth, not from any injuries he got in a past altercation with police where he was shot in the face.

Andrews said she had also talked with Christian about being incarcerated in the past.

“He said to me he enjoyed being away from people in solitary confinement,” she said. “People who struggle to understand people around them and the world around them … often prefer to be alone.”

Andrews said: “Any person with these deficits will have a difficult time knowing how to interact with the world, will have a difficult time maintaining and creating friendships, will have a difficult time making decisions in new places or with new information.”

Under questioning, Andrews said, Christian’s sympathetic nervous system — commonly known as a “fight or flight” response — would most likely be activated on the MAX train when he was pushed by Micah Fletcher, the survivor of the stabbing attack.

“With a brain that’s not fully comprehending, not fully seeing what’s in the environment, at this point his vision would be very singular and my assumption would be a person would be trying to protect themselves,” she said.

Jeff Howes, first assistant to the district attorney, cross-examined Andrews. 

“So, he had no diagnosable mental illness?” Howes asked Andrews. 

“He had no diagnosis that has a diagnosis in the DSM, that’s correct,” Andrews said, referring to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The defense also called Dr. Timothy Derning, a forensic psychologist. Derning evaluated Christian, at the request of the defense, and said he diagnosed Christian with autism spectrum disorder.

“Jeremy Christian has what I call atypical autism. So you have somebody who wasn’t diagnosed as a child,” Derning said. “We don’t have a record of that."

Derning said he interviewed some of Christian’s family members in forming his analysis, but he found that Christian didn’t have any close friends he could consult.

“There were no friends that he kept from childhood. He really didn’t have friends,” Derning said. “A lot of acquaintances or associations but not deep or lasting relationships.”

Derning said that autism can be common in families, specifically among men. He said Christian’s father also had autistic traits.

Christian’s mother and father didn’t have a lot of detailed information to give about Christian or his childhood behavior. At one point in the interview with Christian’s father, Derning said, he did not know his son’s birthday. 

Derning said that though he found Christian had autism spectrum disorder, in some ways Christian’s personality traits are not typical of autism. 

“When people say autistics are just in their own little world, he’s just 180 degrees opposite of that,” Derning said of Christian. “He’s just loud, gregarious, provokes people. He tries to engage by saying very outlandish things trying to get a response out of you.”

One of Christian’s attorney’s, Greg Scholl, asked Derning about how people with autism spectrum disorder typically control and show their emotions.

“Emotional control is usually one of the issues that people with autism have or may have,” Derning said. “If there’s a disruption in their routine they can fly off into tantrums or rages. … They’re less flexible so they don’t roll with the punches as well as the rest of us might.” 

Scholl asked Derning if Christian’s diagnosis could explain the statements he made after the stabbings, for example saying he was glad people died.

“I don’t know what to say about that. I don’t really want to put [autism spectrum disorder] up for explaining those statements,” Derning said. “He was very upset and emotional. I would hate to say, ‘Oh, well that comes out of autism spectrum disorder.’”

In his cross-examination, Chief Deputy District Attorney Don Rees dug into Derning’s background, asking him what kind of people usually request him to do these types of assessments. Rees specifically asked if any police departments, district attorneys or federal prosecutors ever asked Derning to do any assessments.

Derning said no.

“For the last 14 years, your work has been at the request of defense attorneys representing people accused of crimes, correct?” Rees asked.

“Correct,” Derning said. 

Rees also noted that no one who had evaluated Christian until Derning had diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder. 

“That’s true,” Derning said. 

Rees also referenced Derning’s report in which Derning had said autism spectrum disorder cannot fully explain Christian’s behavior on the MAX train.

What Happens Next

The defense will continue presenting its case Wednesday and expects its evidence to go through Thursday. After that, the prosecution could begin a rebuttal case, followed by closing arguments from both sides.

Go Deeper

Powerful Evidence Raises Questions About Legal Approaches To MAX Murder Trial

Friends, Experts Say Lack Of Mental Health Care Made Portland 2017 MAX Stabbings More Likely

Communities Of Color Still Reeling From 2017 Portland MAX Attack

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