After hours of unrelenting questioning and a number of heated exchanges with the prosecutor, a psychiatrist testifying this week on behalf of a nanny who stabbed two small children in her care finally turned to the judge and wearily asked for a break.
Hour after hour, the jury watched a determined assault on her credibility, as the lead prosecutor, Stuart Silberg, parsed nearly every line of her report, probing for inconsistencies and false assumptions.
Rosenbaum was the first of two mental-health professionals to testify this week that Ortega was in such a state of extreme psychosis — hearing Satan command her to kill — that she did not comprehend her actions or even remember them. Their opinions form the backbone of her insanity defense.
The second defense expert was Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, a celebrated forensic psychiatrist who testified in the Unabomber trial and the trial of James E. Holmes, who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Taking the stand Thursday and Friday, he backed up Rosenbaum’s diagnosis, saying Ortega “was frankly psychotic all that day.”
Ortega, 55, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder for killing Leo, 2, and his sister Lucia, 6, in a bathtub at the Krim family’s Upper West Side apartment on Oct. 25, 2012. The children’s mother, Marina Krim, and her middle child, Nessie, walked in as the nanny plunged a knife into her own throat.
Ortega has pleaded not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect. To prevail, she must prove that her mental illness prevented her from understanding the consequences of her actions or knowing they were wrong. If a jury agrees, she would be committed to a secure psychiatric facility. If convicted, she faces life in prison.
The outcome of the trial hinges almost entirely on the testimony of experts for both the defense and the prosecution, who have different opinions about Ortega’s state of mind at the time of the slayings. The defense rested its case Friday, and the district attorney was expected to call its experts Monday.
Prosecutors have said Ortega may have been depressed, but her actions that day show she planned to kill the children because she resented their mother and felt overworked.
Resnick testified she had succumbed the day of the murders to hallucinations that the devil was commanding her to kill the children, and suffered from a dissociative episode, meaning she was not aware of what her hands were doing.
Resnick testified that Ortega told him after the stabbings that she believed “God understood that the devil had controlled her,” and would let her go to heaven, and not hell.
Silberg worked to discredit the evaluations of both psychiatrists, pointing out that Ortega had no documented record of mental illness and her family members only started to report her hallucinations and psychotic thinking after the killings.
Pressed on cross-examination about his theory, Resnick, who interviewed Ortega twice in 2013, sought to dispel the idea that all people suffering from mental illness are obviously ill. “It’s a common myth that psychotic people are like babbling idiots raging around stabbing the wall,” he said. “That’s not how psychosis works.”
Earlier in the week, Silberg methodically picked apart Rosenbaum’s evaluation, which relied on accounts from Ortega, her family, friends and neighbors. That report portrayed Ortega as a highly religious woman who had suffered from auditory and visual hallucinations, and episodes of deep depression, beginning when she was 16 in the Dominican Republic.
Rosenbaum, who has never served as an expert witness at a trial, was at times evasive and appeared flustered as Silberg, a veteran prosecutor, scoured her analysis of Ortega, her handwritten notes, her research and prior testimony for inconsistencies and minor misstatements.
Their tempers flared, and they shouted at one another, leading the judge to intervene.
“It’s a classic way of attempting to show that the expert opinion is not empirically sound,” said Frederick L. Sosinsky, a Manhattan defense lawyer who has argued insanity in two murder cases.
Silberg noted that Rosenbaum did not speak to anyone other than Ortega’s family and friends who had interacted with her in the days before the killings, including Dr. Thomas Caffrey, a psychologist who met with her three days prior.
He also asked why Rosenbaum had not interviewed a doorman whom Ortega had asked if Krim was home minutes before the slayings or a building superintendent who saw the nanny in the bathroom immediately after the deadly attack.
“Your specific role in this case is to determine if she had substantial capacity to understand the nature and consequences of her actions when she killed the children, yes or no?” Silberg said sharply. “And you’re saying that the observations of a person standing in the doorway moments after she has killed the children would not have given you any insight into what her capacity was at the time?”
Rosenbaum explained that she relied on police reports that included comments from the doorman and the superintendent, and she referred to Caffrey’s notes for her review.
Rosenbaum also acknowledged during Silberg’s questioning that Ortega was “not a reliable reporter.” She admitted Ortega had given shifting accounts of events. For instance, Ortega told another psychologist that she took the children to get ice cream and to Central Park instead of going to a ballet class as planned. But she told Rosenbaum that they returned to the Krim apartment because Lucia needed to use a bathroom. “How do you figure out what to believe?” Silberg asked pointedly.
Rosenbaum’s analysis also included an account from Ortega’s niece, Jacqueline Severino, about her aunt’s odd behavior. But Severino, who had no children at the time, had provided the Krim family a phony reference to help Ortega get the job.
Silberg asked Rosenbaum if she had considered the possibility that Ortega’s relatives had a motive to lie. She replied that she believed the relatives had been as “accurate as they could.” “Lying is a possibility I rejected in this case for every witness,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.