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October 8, 2008

Culture shock

Is a Somali refugee accused of murdering his children psychotic, or simply misunderstood?

A Somali man accused of slashing the throats of his four children and attempting to murder his wife might seem crazy, but an expert for the prosecution says that’s just because his culture is misunderstood.

“There is a tendency in a psychological setting to pathologize,” Dr. Larry Curl, a licensed clinical psychologist, testified Monday in the final competency hearing of Said Biyad. Disputing a defense expert’s opinion that the accused is psychotic and incompetent to stand trial for capital murder, Curl attributed that diagnosis to a lack of cultural knowledge: “What looked odd about Mr. Biyad was culture-bound, not mental illness.”

Contradicting the finding of psychosis, the witness called that a “garbage can diagnosis” in this case, suggesting most of the abnormal behavior exhibited by Biyad can be explained with a little research into his background as a Somali Bantu, a persecuted minority in the east African country.

Take for example Biyad’s belief that authorities are going to kill him in jail: “It’s cultural, not delusional,” Curl said. And the fact that he doesn’t know the date, or even what year it is: “In his culture, that’s no evidence of confusion … the only important thing to him is when the planting season arrives.”

When asked how he came to know so much about the Somali Bantu culture, Curl explained that he downloaded multiple articles from the Internet, and took a graduate level course on cultural diversity at Spalding University.

Not surprisingly, the defense swiftly objected.

“Reading a bunch of articles off the Internet does not make this individual an expert,” said public defender Michael Lemke, calling the supposed expertise preposterous. 

It was the first in a string of objections throughout the sometimes-combative proceeding, during which Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Carol Cobb accused the two public defenders representing Biyad of badgering her witness, the only person to take the stand during the nearly two-hour hearing. 

Another heated exchange unfolded when the witness claimed Biyad was pretending not to speak or comprehend English, saying, “Everybody who’s been involved with him knows that he can.”

Tensions had already mounted before the hearing, with Biyad’s lawyers accusing the prosecution of inappropriately sending Curl to stealthily interview their client without permission. As a result, the defense has asked Jefferson County Circuit Judge James Shake to disregard his testimony when determining whether Biyad is competent to stand trial, a decision not expected until early next year.

The prosecutor, however, reiterated she did not hire Curl to evaluate the defendant, but rather to weigh in on the evaluations of other experts, which he did by reviewing reports, interviewing staff at the jail and observing Biyad in his cell.

In explaining his interaction with the defendant at the jail, Curl said he just happened to be talking with another inmate when he noticed Biyad in the very next cell. “Certainly, your honor, I was curious,” the witness testified, saying that as a psychologist, he couldn’t help but observe Biyad. For example, Curl says that when the defendant raised his cuffed wrists to shake hands with his attorneys at the start of the hearing, he watched from the perspective of a mental health professional.

At a competency hearing in July, Dr. Wayne Herner — a forensic psychologist hired by the defense — testified that Biyad is incompetent, describing him in court documents as a “very disturbed individual” who is “paranoid and delusional.” The expert detailed a number of Biyad’s grandiose delusions, like his belief that he has $40 million, that four men are after him to get the money, and that his lawyer is a policeman who is trying to trick him.

The defendant is facing four counts of capital murder for killing his children: daughters who were 2, 4 and 6, and an 8-year-old son. On the morning of Oct. 6, 2006, Biyad allegedly used a hunting knife to cut their throats while their mother was locked in a bedroom for her own protection, unaware of the grisly scene unfolding inside her Iroquois Homes apartment. The defendant also is accused of raping his wife and hitting her in the head with a rubber mallet.

Later that day, Biyad walked into Metro Police headquarters and told an officer he had just murdered his family. The officer initially believed the man was mentally ill and was skeptical of his claim, but sent a patrol unit to check on the family just in case.

During a taped interview at the police station, Biyad told detectives in broken English, interspersed with Somalian, “It is not right, I did bad things, it’s not right … I feel guilty, I feel bad things … God sees if I lie. I cannot lie.”