A temporary blindness during a wrongful conviction

I’m just reading Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives which is a wonderful book if you are a clinical psychologist but probably about as exciting to non-clinical psychologists as you might expect. However, it does contain a few gems of wider interest.

This is a remarkable story from the chapter on the history of forensic clinical psychology which concerns the case of Barry George during the original trial that wrongfully convicted him for the murder of television journalist Jill Dando.

On 26 April 1999, Jill Dando, the presenter of BBC programme Crimewatch, was shot dead outside her home in Fulham, London. On 2 July 2001 Barry George, who lived nearby, was convicted of her murder. Prior to the trial, three defence experts, Gisli Gudjonsson, Susan Young and Michael Kopelman, had reported that Mr George’s fitness to stand trial was contingent on his receiving clinical psychological support in court throughout the trial, which lasted from 23 April to 2 July 2001.

Mr George had a complex presentation, including a long history of primary generalised epilepsy (first identified at age two or three), severely abnormal EEG, intellectual deterioration, significant cognitive and executive deficits, rigid and obsessive personality structure, hypochondriacal preoccupations, and an extreme reaction to stress in the form of anxiety and panic attacks, which increased the frequency of absence epileptic seizures. The court appointed Susan Young, a forensic clinical psychologist, who initially sat in the dock with Mr George and provided him with the required assistance. On 26 April 2001, on the fourth day of the legal arguments and prior to swearing in the jury, Mr George turned to Susan Young and declared, ‘I can’t see’. Prior to this Mr George had been observed having difficulties concentrating on the legal arguments and he claimed to be experiencing petit mal epileptic seizures in the dock.

The trial before the jury was due to commence on 2 May, but the court determined that the trial could only proceed if Mr George’s eyesight could be restored. On the morning of 1 May, all three defence experts were asked to meet Mr George and try to restore his eyesight by 2pm (when the court commenced that day). Michael Kopelman conducted a medical examination and informed Mr George that there was no physical explanation for his blindness. All attempts to persuade Mr George that it was in his interest to to regain his eyesight proved fruitless; he simply kept saying ‘I can’t see’.

At 12.30pm Gisli Gudjonnson, who was trained in hypnosis techniques, suggested that hypnosis might prove successful in bringing back his sight. Mr George agreed to this approach. After an initial induction to the process, Mr George was asked to imagine that he was being taken through a tunnel, accompanied by suggestions that his eyesight would gradually return during the journey and improve further during the lunchbreak (i.e. posthypnotic suggestion). After being brought out of the hypnosis, Mr George said he could see but his eyesight was blurred. He was reassured that it would continue to improve and by 2.00pm his eyesight had fully recovered and after the final legal arguments that afternoon, the trial commenced before a jury.

The defence experts construed Mr George’s blindness as being psychogenic in origin caused by the inability to cope with the stress generated by the legal arguments (i.e. putting a physical barrier between himself and the court), which was unlocked by the process of hypnosis. This was not the first time Mr George had presented with psychogenic symptoms as he had presented with a functional aphonia (i.e. nonorganic loss of speech) following a stressful environmental event in 1994. Psychogenic blindness and psychogenic aphonia are both a form of ‘conversion disorder’ and are often caused by stress that manifests itself as physical symptoms.

Gisli Gudjonnson was originally a policeman in his native Iceland but became interested in the psychological aspects of the crimes he was investigating, moved to the UK to study psychology, and has been massively influential in the development of forensic psychology.

He has been involved in some of the most high profile cases in the country and, TV producers, is the likely subject of your next Nordic detective drama.
 

Link to details of Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives.

2 thoughts on “A temporary blindness during a wrongful conviction”

  1. Very interesting story. I had temporary blindness for a couple of months due to stress from working on the film Final Destination. I wasn’t seen by a psychologist, but the retina specialist said it was CSR caused by stress.

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