Crazy or culpable? Dissociative identity disorder in the courtroom

Posted at 1:37 PM, May 4, 2023 and last updated 1:40 PM, May 4, 2023


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Court TV) – Letecia Stauch, the woman accused of murdering her 11-year-old stepson, Gannon, and disposing of his body in a suitcase in a river, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in her murder trial. Stauch claims she has dissociative identity disorder and that it was a separate personality that killed her stepson.

Letecia Stauch booking photo

Letecia Stauch is in the El Paso County jail on a charge of first degree murder. (El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

Previously known as multiple personality disorder, people with dissociative identity disorder have at least two fully distinct personalities or identities that alternately take control of the person’s body and are completely disconnected in terms of thoughts, consciousness and memory, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

While NAMI estimates that up to 75% of people have experienced at least one dissociative moment in their lives, only 2% meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a disorder.

Mental illness did not excuse criminal responsibility until 1978, when a serial rapist with split personalities was not held culpable due to his mental condition in the trial of OH v. Billy Milligan. The public was outraged and made the defense difficult for many future cases.

A 1995 study published in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law examined the use of insanity pleas across seven states (California, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin) and found fewer than 1% of defendants attempted to plead insanity. Of those, there was a success rate of 28%, with an acquittal rate of 0.26%.

In some cases, the court suggested defendants had been exaggerating their condition, or completely making it up. Other cases cited a lack of research and scientific standards.

Stauch’s defense attorney Josh Tolini took the offensive approach to these concerns when he called Dr. Dorothy Lewis to the stand, who testified that there are far more crazy people than insane because they do not meet the varying criteria of each state.

RELATED: Psychiatrist testifies Letecia Stauch was insane when Gannon was murdered

Dr. Lewis is an expert in serial killers and dissociative identity disorder, who has examined other notorious murderers, such as Ted Bundy and John Lennon’s shooter, Mark David Chapman. She testified that Stauch is one of the most mentally complex patients she’s ever studied.

“When I was interviewing her, suddenly it seemed to me like she was speaking Russian… It looked as though… as if, she had switched into a different entity,” said Dr. Lewis. “I do believe she thinks she was speaking some other language… That would be a coping mechanism.”

Dr. Lewis talked about Stauch’s history — coming from “an extraordinarily violent household,” describing “grotesquely physical and sexually abuse” situations.

Stauch told a forensic psychologist, Dr. Loandra Torres, that her stepfather would use belts, mops, and broomsticks to punish her. 

“It’s very common for that other aspect of that person to take on the characteristics of the abuser. This may be why it’s so astonishing,” Dr. Lewis said. She said some people may recognize what they’re doing, while others do not. “It can cause disastrous effects.”

Out of the multiple personalities Stauch described, one stood out to Dr. Lewis and other mental health professionals familiar with Stauch’s case. 

“The one that I remember particularly is she referred to somebody named Maria, and Maria apparently was a physically abusive entity, and when I heard her speak, she was harsh and angry and hurtful,” said Dr. Lewis. “In fact, it made me wonder when I first saw that, have I just met the aspect of her personality that killed Gannon?”

Dr. Lewis went on to say about the brutal attack on Gannon, “Her brain was in an altered state. There’s no way in hell she could have stopped what she was doing… She would not remember it. And a classic part of Maria’s situation is she doesn’t remember what happened. I’m not even convinced she knows she did it.”

In states where defendants are permitted to use an insanity defense, states rely on several tests to determine whether they are legally sane:
  • M’Naghten test: A standard under which a criminal is insane because they did not understand that what they were doing was wrong at the time they did it.
  • Durham Rule: Entitles a defendant to claim insanity if the crime was committed as a direct result of their mental disease or defect. Unlike the M’Naughten test, this does not take into account whether or not the person knew what they were doing was wrong.
  • Irresistible Impulse Test: Used in New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia, defines a defendant who is insane as being unable to control their impulses, even if they knew them to be wrong.

If Stauch is found not guilty by reason of insanity, she’ll be committed to the custody of the state department of health and human services, which will place her in an institution. The institution will be required to submit reports “certifying whether the defendant continues to meet the criteria for ongoing inpatient hospitalization or meets the applicable test for release,” per Colorado law.