Prosecutor in Shumey trial questions psychiatrist's qualifications

Heated exchange: Prosecutor asks doctor whether he feels terrible for clearing defendant days before he shot his mother

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comFebruary 8, 2013 

During a heated trial exchange Friday, a prosecutor asked a psychiatrist whether he felt terrible for giving a clean bill of health to his patient two days before the patient killed his mother with a shotgun.

The verbal fireworks occurred as Deputy District Attorney Karen Gray questioned whether psychiatrist James Moghtader was qualified — as Christopher Shumey’s treating physician — to render an opinion now on Shumey’s sanity. Moghtader is not a forensic psychiatrist familiar with sanity issues, she said.

Moghtader said in court Shumey had to be insane when he fatally shot Karen Shumey on Sept. 17, 2011. Yet, Gray noted, two days before the shooting, Moghtader reported that Christopher Shumey had no psychotic symptoms and was alert and oriented.

“You must feel terrible,” Gray said. “Don’t you feel like you failed him and failed his mother?”

“Yes, I do,” said Moghtader, a defense witness, who said Shumey was often able to mask his symptoms. “Unfortunately, psychiatrists aren’t mind readers.”

“Two days after you gave him a clean bill of health, he goes out and kills his mother,” Gray went on. “And now you want to help his family. That’s why you are now offering to testify in a field in which you have no expertise or experience.”

“I’m trying to tell the truth,” Moghtader said, noting that he wasn’t getting paid for his testimony — as future psychiatric witnesses in this trial will be. “I’m trying to help Chris because I think he meets that criteria (for legal insanity) … he did not know what he was doing. He did not know exactly what was going on.”

Shumey was previously found guilty of second-degree murder in the slaying of his mother outside his San Luis Obispo apartment. A second trial is now under way in Superior Court to determine his sanity at the time of the shooting.

Moghtader treated Shumey for 12 years, until the time of the murder. During Shumey’s first three sessions with him, Moghtader said, his concerned mother came along.

“Karen and Bob (Shumey’s father) were very caring parents,” he said. “They were worried about him.”

When he began seeing Shumey in 1999, he said, the patient had manic feelings and delusions. Shumey had thoughts about killing Jesus Christ, Moghtader said, and other delusions.

“He told me he thought he was the king of Russia,” Moghtader said.

At times, Shumey would vacillate between seeming healthy and psychosis, Moghtader said. During an internship with “The Tonight Show,” Moghtader said, being around celebrities triggered his feelings of grandiosity, and he began to become more psychotic. But a couple of years later, while working as a winery testing room manager, he seemed to stabilize.

Three weeks before the shooting, Shumey’s father drove him to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where the defendant told doctors he was “spiraling downward” and feeling suicidal. There he was treated with medication. And after five days Shumey told the staff he was not suicidal or homicidal.

“He denied auditory or visual hallucination,” testified Mikhail Meyerovich, a psychiatrist who treated him at Cottage.

On Sept. 15, Shumey visited Moghtader, who said Shumey’s thinking was clear and connected and his mood minimally manic. However, he said, that condition could have changed rapidly if Shumey stopped taking his medication.

“This was such a violent, out-of-character act, there’s no other explanation,” he said.
When Moghtader said he didn’t think Shumey was violent, Gray shot back: “You’re not very good at predicting behavior, are you, doctor?”

“You can only do the best you can,” he said.

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