Norwegian court gets to heart of Breivik trial: Is he sane?

With the beginning of testimony by a slew of psychiatrists, Norway's trial of Anders Behring Breivik has reached its crux – determining whether he was sane when he killed 77 people last summer.

Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/Reuters
Anders Behring Breivik is pictured at a Norwegian court in Oslo, Friday, June 8.

Eight weeks into the trial against Anders Behring Breivik, the case has finally turned to the key unanswered question about the Norwegian man who has admitted to killing 77 last summer in twin terror attacks: Was he sane when he did it?

The court heard testimony today from the first of 17 psychiatric experts scheduled to appear in court over the next two weeks to help the court make that contentious determination. Experts sharply disagree on his diagnosis, which will have a major impact on the severity of his sentence.

Two conflicting psychiatric reports have been presented in the trial. The first, in November, found Breivik to be a paranoid schizophrenic and hence criminally not punishable for the killings, while the second, in April, found that Breivik had personality disorders, but no signs of psychosis. 

The psychiatrist who went on the stand today testified that, in his opinion, Mr. Breivik was not psychotic when he placed a car bomb outside Oslo government buildings and then went on a shooting rampage at the Labor party's youth summer camp at Utøya island last July.

Ulrik Fredrik Malt, professor in psychiatry at the University of Oslo, said that after observing Breivik in court for seven days and reading both forensic reports, it was his “academic opinion” that Breivik possibly suffered from narcissistic personality disorders – as the second report found – and possibly Aspergers or Tourette syndrome.

However, although he could not rule paranoid schizophrenia out entirely, there was a “less than 25 percent” chance that Breivik fit the criteria, Mr. Malt said.

“The first thing I saw when I came into court the first day was not a monster, but a deeply lonely man,” he said. “This is a tragedy for Norway and for us, but also a tragedy for Breivik,” he added.

Malt concluded that Breivik might be suffering from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism in which an otherwise normal person has problems understanding social signals and lacks empathy. He said it was possibly present at an early age, visible from Breivik's inability to form long-standing relations, a period of social isolation after 2006 when he moved back in with his mother and started intensively playing the online game World of Warcraft, and his tendency to repeat things.

Malt also presented the possibility that Breivik had the neurological disorder Tourette syndrome, which causes physical and verbal tics, as proven by his bizarre eye and mouth movements, obsession with numbers, and the “machine-like” way he gunned down the youth on Utøya island and later recounted it as “like cherry picking.” As evidenced by his 1,000-page-plus manifesto, Breivik might also suffer from hypergraphia, an overwhelming urge to write that is an occasional symptom of Tourette syndrome, Malt said. 

The professor told the Monitor that having Aspergers or Tourette syndrome does not make a person psychotic, and that a person with Aspergers is only slightly more disposed to psychosis than the average person. 

Breivik reacted aggressively to Malt's independent psychiatric assessment, saying it was “grossly offensive” and an attempt at “character assassination” and that it was unfair that, unlike Malt, his comments were not allowed to be broadcast. Breivik wants to be considered sane so that, as he says, his anti-Islamic ideology can stand stronger, and has welcomed the public nature of the trial as a way of spreading his beliefs. 

The prosecution has recommended he be sentenced to compulsory mental healthcare, based on the conclusions from the first psychiatric report – the only one available at the time. 

The court decided today to not allow Per Olav Naess, the child psychiatrist who examined Breivik when he was four, to testify out of concern that it would constitute a breach of patient confidentiality. At that time in 1983, Breivik was nearly removed from his divorced mother's custody. Breivik was also against Naess testifying.

Chipping away at the truth

Today’s psychiatric focus comes after a week of expert witnesses both supporting and chipping away at Breivik’s defense strategy. Two days ago, the prosecution presented evidence to highlight inconsistencies in Breivik’s story, proving that he lied about when he first started planning last summer’s twin terror attacks and the extent of his time playing World of Warcraft.

Prosecutors say Breivik spent so much time on the multiplayer online role-playing game that it was impossible that he started writing his manifesto full-time in 2007, as he claims. Inga Bejer Engh, Oslo public prosecutor, told the Monitor that they question in particular when he wrote part three, which deals with the planning phase of his attacks.

Earlier in the week the defense presented a line-up of political experts and anti-Islamist witnesses, such as the former leader of the Norwegian Defense League, to support Breivik’s sanity claim. Several of them testified that they share Breivik’s opinion that society is on the verge of a civil war because of the culture conflict between Christians and Muslims. The intent was to prove that there were sane people who shared Breivik's beliefs. 

The first psychiatric report has been criticized for not taking into account Breivik’s extremist ideology.

Engh told the Monitor that one of the key questions behind the first forensic psychiatric report was not whether Breivik believed Norway was in a civil war, but whom had given him the authority to undertake this campaign against the Labor party. Breivik accuses the party of allowing the Muslim colonization of Europe through its lax immigration polices.

In the end, the ultimate question of Breivik’s sanity rests with the five judges. If found sane, Breivik faces a maximum sentence of 21 years. A final ruling is expected to come on either July 20 or August 24, the latter of which would come after the one-year anniversary of the Norway's worst atrocity since World War II. 

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