Doctor Bolsters Insanity Defense

by Susan Johnson
Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO- A Westminster man was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time he assaulted and threatened to kill his wife and was not responsible for his actions, which were caused in part by years of inhaling paint fumes, a defense psychiatrists testified Friday.

Defense attorneys for Glenn Prior, 54, argue that their client should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial, originally slated to end Friday, is now expected to last through Tuesday.

By the weight of the evidence, rather than the tougher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense must show that Prior had a mental disease or defect that made him unable to act lawfully or that he was unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

Prior is facing charges of aggravated domestic assault, domestic assault, arson, cruelty to children and threatening by telephone in connection with a four-day reign of terror in February 1998.

Boston psychiatrist Harold Bursztajn spent nearly five hours on the stand Friday bolstering defense arguments that Prior was insane when he slapped his wife, held a knife to her throat, threatened her friends, and later burned her clothes and jewelry. During the spring, the court had approved funding between $5,000 and $10,000 for a defense expert on neurotoxicology. Prior is represented by private attorneys hired by his wife, Joanne. While acknowledging she was terrorized by her husband's actions, she testified that it was the result of inhaling solvent paint and solvent fumes.

The "painters syndrome" is characterized by confusion, irritability, depression or edginess, and paranoia sometimes leading to psychosis, Bursztajn said. The toxicology of paints and solvents, especially those containing hydrocarbons and those containing toluene, affects the central nervous system, he said. He said it takes as long as two years for the toxins to dissipate. Prior has worked painting cars for more than 30 years. The neurology coupled with Prior's personality triggered a brief psychotic episode brought about by an irrational belief that his wife was having an affair, Bursztajn said. He said that headaches and extreme fatigue in the two days preceding Feb. 21, 1998, contributed to the psychosis.

A brief psychotic episode may be as short as one day or as long as 30 days, although one to two weeks is the norm, Bursztajn said. It is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and erratic behavior. Describing prior as a gentle soul and loving father and husband, Bursztajn dismissed as irrelevant an incident that took place more than 20 years ago, when Prior held a gun against the head of his first wife and later burned her clothing and jewelry. "You can't judge a man's character by what happened 25 years ago," he said. "There is no good way to know what happened. Each protagonist has a different version."

He also dismissed a January 1999 outburst in court which Prior screamed sexually explicit profanities at a female state's attorney. Prior was held in contempt of court and sentenced to spend six months in jail. Bursztajn said that the incident occurred because Prior was upset about the death of a friend and did not show a pattern of violence against women.

"He was vulnerable under stress to losing perspective and experiencing fear and rage," Bursztajn said. Bursztajn did not dispute the contention of Deputy State's Attorney's Tracy Shriver that Prior "prefers women in a subservient role." Bursztajn said Prior has a fear of abandonment and susceptibility to paranoias brought about by the fact that his father died when he was 4 and that is mother left him in the care of his grandparents so she could return to England.

"He has a lack of insight into his feelings," Bursztajn said of Prior.