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Mental Illness: Schizotypal Personality Disorder
Executed on April 21, 2005
An execution date has been set for Bill Benefiel on April 21, 2005 in Indiana. Benefiel was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder, rape and confinement of Delores Wells, 19, on February 7, 1987.
The facts of the case were established by a surviving victim, Alicia Elmore, 17. Elmore was abducted on October 10, 1986 and taken to a house, where she was subsequently held captive for four months, during which time she was raped and sodomised. Elmore later saw Delores Wells, naked, gagged, and with her wrists and ankles handcuffed. Wells' eyes were taped shut and Elmore subsequently witnessed Benefiel beating Wells. A few days later, Benefiel left the house and returned dirty, with blisters on his hands. He told Elmore that he had been digging a grave big enough for two people. He later informed Elmore that he had killed Wells and buried her body.
A few days later police came to Benefiel's house to search for Elmore. Benefiel hid her in a crawl space in the ceiling, where the police eventually found her. A search of the woods surrounding Terre Haute, Indiana, also revealed Wells' grave site and her body. An autopsy revealed the injuries she had sustained, and established asphyxia as the cause of death.
Benefiel presented an insanity defense at trial. Court appointed experts testified during the guilt phase that Benefiel suffered from schizotypal personality disorder and from a mental disease or defect. Additionally in mitigation, Benefiel presented evidence of his earlier bizarre childhood and abuse suffered.
Benefiel has “schizotypal personality disorder,” (“latent schizophrenia,” or “borderline schizophrenia.”). This is a severe mental disorder on the “schizophrenic spectrum”: that is, the diseases have some similar, though not identical symptoms and are genetically related. People diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder frequently have a close biological relative with schizophrenia. In Benefiel’s case, his father was schizophrenic and spent most of his life in Indiana’s state mental health system. Those who suffer from schizotypal personality disorder experience cognitive and perceptual distortions that are very real to them. For example, they may believe that others are talking about them or laughing at them when they are not. They “feel” the presence of others who are not actually there. They often misperceive or misinterpret the words or gesture of others, frequently in a paranoid fashion. They are severely socially withdrawn and isolated. They may perceive themselves as unreal and the world around them as a frightening and hostile place.
The symptoms of this disorder can be seen in Benefiel’s life as far back as the age of six where he was described as withdrawn. In 1968, when Benefiel was 12 years old, a school psychological exam indicated that he had an I.Q. of 80 and was classified as a “slow learning child.” The evaluator also noted that Benefiel was frequently absent from school, that this had a been “a pattern for several years” and that he “tends to react to many outside and inside stimuli.” It was suggested that Benefiel obtain counseling at the Vigo County Adult and Child Guidance Clinic. Upon attending the clinic, mental health professionals at the Guidance Clinic concluded that “Bill’s personality is developing in a schizoid direction” and that Benefiel suffered from “Borderline Mental Retardation.” Guidance Clinic psychologist Floy Mathews later testified that Benefiel was withdrawn, isolated, and developing paranoid ideas. His mother was overprotective, smothering and inconsistent, and transferred her own attitude that the world was a threatening, hostile and unforgiving place to her son. Matthews and her colleagues recommended that Benefiel and his mother receive counseling. However, his mother did not keep appointments for herself or her son, and the treatment was never initiated.
A year later, Harry Leader, the assistant principle at Benefiel’s school wrote to the Vigo County Juvenile Center asking them to “investigate” and intervene because of Benefiel’s consistent absences from school and odd behavior. He explained that Benefiel’s behavior suggested that “he may have some psychotic tendencies” and that he was frequently unable to participate in classes.
Benefiel’s symptoms began to escalate around this time. Tests revealed his IQ to be 85, in the lowest 20th percentile for children his own age. The tester also noted that Benefiel reported that “he feels that other kids laugh at him a lot” and “that his nerves bother him.” Benefiel was described as “insecure,” having a “poor self-concept,” someone who “worries a lot” and suffers extreme anxiety about school. Mr. Leader also wrote to the Juvenile Center to provide further information on Benefiel’s problems. Mr. Leader explained that he believed that Benefiel had “developed a personality structure that allows him to withdraw from society when confronted with any type of challenge” and that his mother was reinforcing this behavior. He urged the Juvenile Center to intervene, stating that “if nothing is done in the immediate future, Bill will soon be beyond help.”
Benefiel was then referred for a second psychiatric evaluation by the Juvenile Center. He was subsequently described as “very withdrawn,” “terribly insecure” and completely isolated from everyone but his mother. His mother was described as “over-protective,” “controlling” “whiney” and as someone who “reacts hysterically to any situation that does not meet her own personal needs.” Psychiatric social worker Judy Harrell Eaton was one of the mental health professionals who evaluated Benefiel at this time. She later testified that his extreme withdrawal and isolation were consistent with the prior evaluation that his personality was developing in a schizoid direction, and consistent with the diagnosis of “schizotypal personality disorder” that he received years later.
The Juvenile Center subsequently recommended to the Juvenile Court that Benefiel be removed from his home and placed in a residential treatment facility. A placement was obtained at the Methodist Children’s Home, however, the court never signed the order and Benefiel remained at home with his mother, stopped attending school entirely, and never completed the 7th grade.
Benefiel was evaluated again in 1974 at the age of 17 by Psychologist Don Nelson. Nelson concluded that, owing to his psychiatric problems, he should be eligible for federal disability benefits. He noted that Benefiel would not get out the car initially for the examination. Dr. Nelson observed that Benefiel was “physically and psychologically immature,” was extremely withdrawn and diagnosed him as suffering from an “inadequate personality.” Benefiel continued to receive benefits until 1987, when he was arrested and charged with capital murder.
Throughout his adult life, Benefiel never maintained employment, other than delivering newspapers. He did eventually marry and have three children; however, he never moved more that 100 yards from his mother’s house and remained withdrawn from society throughout his adult life. According to his wife, Marilyn, for the 13 years she had known him prior to his arrest, Benefiel persistently displayed excessive social anxiety and paranoia. He would not go out in public and on the rare occasion that he was among other people, he believed everyone was staring at him when they were not. Throughout their relationship Benefiel remained “afraid” of Marilyn’s family, without any rational basis for his fear. Marilyn recalled that on “thousands” of occasions Benefiel had told her that “he does not belong in this world” and that Benefiel had been exhibiting suicidal behavior for years. After his arrest, Marilyn observed that Benefiel had been exhibiting bizarre behavior at the jail, and at one point he had thought his dead father was in his cell with him. Marilyn believed Benefiel had substantial psychiatric problems and stated that he had never received any treatment during the time she had known him.
At the time of his 1988 capital trial, the court appointed two psychiatrists, Dr. Michael Murphy and Dr. David Crane, to examine Benefiel and report on his competency and sanity. Both doctors believed that he was severely mentally ill, however, neither believed that he met the definition of legal insanity at the time of the offense. During his incarceration prior to the trial, Benefiel attempted to commit suicide on two separate occasions.
On September 27, 1988, in the middle of his trial, Benefiel suffered a mental breakdown, believed to have been brought on by the stress and trauma of having to testify regarding the events in his life, in particular his childhood sexual abuse. Consistent with his mental illness, Benefiel began to hallucinate, believing that the people in the courtroom were laughing at him. At a competency hearing the next day, both his attorney and a defense psychologist testified that they believed that Benefiel’s mental condition had significantly deteriorated and that he was unable to participate in the trial at this point owing to his mental illness. However, after listening to this, the trial judge nevertheless found Benefiel was competent to stand trial. The judge based his decision upon the May 23rd testimony of Dr. Crane and Dr. Murphy, claiming that both had testified that Benefiel was “malingering” in their testimony at a pre-trial competency hearing on that date. However, neither Dr. Murphy nor Dr. Crane had testified that Benefiel was malingering. Drs. Crane and Murphy had both testified that Benefiel was unquestionably mentally ill. In fact, Dr. Crane was specifically asked whether he thought Benefiel was faking, and testified that Benefiel was not. Both Dr. Crane and Dr. Murphy unequivocally stated neither had ever believed or testified that Benefiel was “malingering”.
The judge also refused to consider evidence of Benefiel’s long-standing mental illness at sentencing. Under Indiana law, “legal insanity” is a defense to a crime, however even when a defendant’s mental illness does not render a criminal defendant legally insane, Indiana law still requires that his mental illness be considered as a mitigating factor at sentencing. In spite of this, the sentencing judge stated in his sentencing order that there were no mitigating factors in this case. The judge explained that because Benefiel’s mental illness did not render him incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct, that is, because he was not legally insane, the court would not give any consideration to this factor at sentencing. Unfortunately, at trial, Drs. Murphy and Crane were asked to focus their testimony on the question of Benefiel’s sanity at the time of the offense: neither was asked to testify at sentencing regarding whether they believed Benefiel’s mental illness should be considered a mitigating factor.
Years later, during post-conviction proceedings, both Dr. Murphy and Dr. Crane testified regarding their opinions as to mitigating factors present in Benefiel’s case. Both testified that he suffered from an extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the offense and that he suffers from a “severe” mental illness. Dr. Crane explained that Benefiel probably suffers from one or several personality disorders, but he had not spent enough time with him to substantiate a particular diagnosis. Dr. Murphy testified that that Benefiel suffers from schizotypal personality disorder and, unlike at trial, he was asked to explain this disorder. Dr. Murphy explained that schizotypal personality disorder is “one of the most severe personality disorders” and falls on a continuum of psychotic disorders of which the most severe is schizophrenia. Dr. Murphy believed that Benefiel had a genetic predisposition to developing this disorder because of a family history of schizophrenia and further, that Benefiel had exhibited primary symptoms of this longstanding disorder as a child. Dr. Murphy explained that much of his bizarre, reclusive and paranoid behavior, as well as his extreme communication problems, were typical of and due to his illness. Dr. Murphy also explained that Benefiel’s illness not only significantly impaired his ability to function in society, but also demonstrably impairs his perceptions of the world around him.
Since his trial, Benefiel has attempted to withdraw his appeals at virtually every stage of the proceedings: in the Indiana Supreme Court on direct appeal, in Federal District Court while his habeas petition was pending, in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and again in the United States Supreme Court. Notably, not one of these courts was willing to grant his request to withdraw, largely due to his history.
During state post-conviction proceedings Vigo County Prosecutor Philip Adler, after consulting with members of Delores Wells family, agreed to ask the circuit court to modify Benefiel’s sentence to a term of 120 years, if Benefiel would sign a document agreeing to not to pursue any further appeals. Benefiel refused to sign the document. His attorneys assert that this was not because he wanted to pursue more appeals: as noted above, Benefiel tried to waive all of his subsequent appeals. Rather, just as when he was child, he reverted to his only response: that of withdrawal. Thus, consistent with his mental illness, Benefiel continues to assert that he is “not of this world” and continues to find participation in his case so painful, that he would rather die than do anything to help himself.
Mitigating Factors: Sexual, Physical and Emotional abuse
Benefiel was subjected to childhood and adolescent abuse. Prior to his birth, Benefiel’s natural mother, Norma Vick, arranged to sell him, in exchange for a place to stay during her pregnancy, to a blind, forty year old convicted felon, Helen Benefiel, who had never been to school, and who was known to run a house of prostitution. For the next six years, Helen and the man she was living with, Harry Benefiel, told people that he was their own, or that he was a foster child. Harry died of cancer on Benefiel’s sixth birthday. Helen told Benefiel that the hospital had given his father a pill to put him out of his misery; Benefiel believed her.
Shortly after Harry’s death, Helen petitioned to legally adopt Benefiel. The Vigo County Department of Public Welfare conducted a pre-adoption investigation, during which they learnt that Helen was known to run a house of prostitution, have an armed robbery conviction, and a life long history of lying to public agencies to obtain benefits. Legally blind since early childhood, Helen had never attended school and never held a job. Her only legitimate income was $95 per month from blind assistance. She was described by the school as overprotective of Benefiel, keeping him home from school for the slightest reason, and combative with school officials. At the time of the agency’s home visit, six year old Benefiel was sleeping in the same bed as Helen.
The Welfare Department submitted a report to the Vigo County Circuit Court detailing their findings and stating: “The Board of the County Department of Public Welfare recommends that this Petition be denied and that the child be removed from the home.” In March of 1963, the Board was asked to supplement their report. They interviewed additional individuals, and once again submitted a report to the Court stating: “After supplemental information the Board of Vigo County Department of Public Welfare confirms its original recommendation that this Petition be denied.” On April 5, 1963, the Vigo County Circuit Court, despite the unqualified recommendations of the Welfare Department, allowed Helen to adopt Benefiel.
Helen continued to keep Benefiel out of school after she obtained legal custody. Both Benefiel’s school and mental health records repeatedly describe Helen as a controlling, hostile and unstable woman who used Benefiel to meet her own needs. Helen also told school officials, and Benefiel, that he had an underdeveloped brain and could not learn. She consistently thwarted any efforts from the school or local mental health professionals to help him.
Helen’s lies extended to repeatedly telling Benefiel that he had killed her baby girl when he was a child. In fact, Helen’s records show that she had a baby girl who died shortly after birth years before Benefiel was born, and was unable to have children of her own by the time she acquired him from Norma Vick.
Benefiel was also sexually abused by a man who lived with his mother; however, when he told Helen this, she did not believe him. In response, she beat him with a belt and a broom across the head while he just stood there and cried. Benefiel was later molested by two other men who threatened to kill him if he did not comply; owing to Helen’s earlier reactions, he was afraid to tell his mother in case he was accused of lying and incurred another beating.
When Benefiel was 15, attempts were made again to remove him from this environment. The Referee of the Juvenile Court in Vigo County was asked to order Benefiel's removal from Helen Benefiel's home, and place him in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, where he would receive treatment and counseling. This recommendation came after school officials asked the Vigo County Juvenile Center to intervene when Benefiel started exhibiting “psychotic tendencies” in school; after the mental health professionals at the Vigo County Adult and Child Guidance Clinic evaluated Benefiel and discussed him with the juvenile probation officer assigned to his case; and after the clinic’s social worker, Judy Harrell, secured a placement for him at the Methodist Children’s Home. The Vigo County Juvenile Court nevertheless declined to intervene, and Benefiel remained in Helen’s home. Judy Harrell later testified that she believed the court did not wish to incur the additional expense of placing him in the home, which at the time would have amounted to approximately $30 to $35 a day for a period of one to two years.
Helen’s bizarre behaviour continued in to Benefiel’s early adulthood. When Benefiel was 17, she attempted to abduct the teenage daughter of a friend for the purpose of obtaining a wife for him. Helen had invited Helen Rambo, 17, the daughter of a friend, Barbara Rambo, to visit from Missouri for a few weeks. According to Helen Rambo, she and Benefiel enjoyed a friendship. Helen Benefiel subsequently decided that Helen Rambo would be a suitable wife for her son, and when it was time for Helen Rambo to return to her family, Helen Benefiel refused to let her go home. Barbara Rambo had to travel to Terre Haute to retrieve her daughter with police assistance. Helen Benefiel hid Helen Rambo with neighbours, however when confronted by Barbara and the police, Helen told Benefiel to go and get her.
Every mental health professional who evaluated Benefiel recognized the devastating effects that Helen had on her mentally ill son. Psychologist Floy Matthews and Psychiatric Social Worker Judy Harrel Eaton were involved with Benefiel when he was a teenager at the Vigo County Adult and Child Guidance Center. Both later testified that Benefiel should have been removed from his home environment; both believed that even at fifteen, he was not beyond hope and could, with treatment, have learned to function more adequately, perhaps preventing the crimes for which he was convicted.
Social worker Celeste White explained that Helen's behavior toward her child was suggestive of "[a] parent who wants to keep a child in a submissive kind of role" and wants to perpetuate some form of abuse. White opined that the various factors affecting Benefiel's development; physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, lack of support, inappropriate emotional boundaries with his mother, extreme isolation, and lack of social development all could have contributed to what Benefiel eventually did to Alicia Elmore and Delores Wells. White explained that while any one of those factors in isolation will not generally lead to a highly dysfunctional person, the combination had an enormous impact. As with every other mental health professional who testified, White believed Benefiel could have been helped had he been removed from Helen's home and placed in a mental health facility.
Both Dr. Crane and Dr. Murphy agreed that Benefiel grew up in a “very dysfunctional” or “pathological” environment, with the primary perpetrator of the abuse being his mother, who used him to meet her own needs and thwarted any efforts from outsiders to help. Dr. Murphy explained that many of the devastating effects of his mental illness could have been ameliorated had he been removed from his mother and given treatment. Dr. Murphy from his experience working with the Vigo County child welfare system believed that the system could have effectively intervened but in this case simply failed to do so.
Of note the victim’s family and surviving victim did not request the death penalty for Benefiel. At Benefiel’s sentencing hearing, Ms. Well’s parents and husband, and Alicia Elmore all testified that they believed a sentence that would require Benefiel to spend the rest of his natural life in prison was a suitable sentence in this case. Moreover, then Vigo County Prosecutor Philip I. Adler, did not urge either the jury or the judge to impose the death penalty, but rather asked each to simply do they be believed to be fair and just.