Breivik's sanity: Norway psychiatrists at odds

Psychiatrists Agnar Aspaas (R) and Terje Toerrissen (10 Apr 2012) The two psychiatrists said they believed Breivik had a high risk of re-offending

A new report by forensic psychiatrists Agnar Aspaas and Terje Toerrissen has concluded that mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is sane: that neither at the time of crime nor during their assessment was he psychotic.

In their opinion, he does not suffer from any serious psychiatric conditions.

Many Norwegians will feel relieved at their conclusion because of a widespread belief that Breivik should be held to account for his crimes by being sent to prison, and not to a psychiatric institution.

The latter would almost certainly have been the outcome had this second report agreed with the previous one, which deemed Breivik insane.

"Looking at his actions it is difficult to understand how he can be sane," one Norwegian told the BBC News website. "But at least he can now be sent to prison where he is highly unlikely to be released any time soon."

However, the verdict of the case is far from given. With two conflicting reports, psychiatric issues are sure to become a dominant issue during the proceedings.

Start Quote

We've considered alternative views, but we have come to a unanimous decision”

End Quote Agnaar Aspaas Co-author, second psychiatric report

One lawyer who works for Norwegian police told the BBC that she was intrigued as to how the trial would pan out.

"The new report might not change much in the end," she said, "as courts are obliged to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt on the issue of sanity. The initial report created doubts, and the new report cannot undo that."

She said she therefore expected the court of first instance to deem Breivik insane although ultimately the High Court might reach a different conclusion.

Mr Aspaas and Mr Toerrissen say they have simply judged the material differently than the previous set of experts, but people will be asking how secure the conclusions can be when they are so different.

Ila high security prison Ila high security prison in Norway, where Breivik is being held

Terje Toerrissen suggested that the longer time that he and his colleague had to make their assessment since the killings might have given them an advantage over the previous report, bearing in mind the reaction of Norwegian society to the killings.

They made clear that they had already formed an initial diagnostic opinion before they had seen the first report, which they read halfway through their own conversations with Breivik.

'Open mind'

The judge at Oslo Court, Ina Stroemstad, has said the public's need for further information will be met through the open proceedings of the trial itself.

She emphasised that the two assessments of Breivik are central pieces of evidence, but not the only ones. "Very often the report is upheld, but this is a reminder that having an open mind is important."

Breivik's victims

Eva Kathinka Lutken (17) from Sarpsborg, Norway, who has been confirmed as one of those killed in the July 22 attacks
  • Eight people killed and 209 injured by bomb in Oslo
  • 69 people killed on Utoeya, of them 34 aged between 14 and 17 including Eva Kathinka Lutken (above)
  • 33 injured on Utoeya
  • Nearly 900 people affected by attacks

"It should also be remembered that the experts are held to account for their views during the trial," she said.

Psychiatry is not an exact science by any means, but the marked discrepancy between the two reports inevitably calls into question the validity of such forensic psychiatric assessments in general. It is bound to spark a debate about the role of forensic psychiatrists in Norwegian courts and trials.

The sharply contrasting assessments have left many people confused as to how the same person can appear to be insane at one time and completely sound of mind at another.

What is particularly unusual about Breivik's trial is that his lawyer will be arguing that his client is sane. This, of course, is the opposite of what happens in most trials where there is a question of the perpetrator's sanity.

His defence team has even called the cleric who founded radical Islamic group Ansar al-Islam, Mullah Krekar, as a witness in an attempt to demonstrate how a person with extreme political views may be put on trial as sane. Krekar was recently sentenced to five years in prison by a Norwegian court for making death threats against officials.

The two psychiatrists who have assessed Breivik as sane emphasise in their report their belief that he has a very high risk of re-offending.

Setting out their assessment of his sanity, Agnar Aspaars was quite clear in his verdict. "We've considered alternative views, but we have come to a unanimous decision."

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