Just how mentally ill was Tang?

Wellesley stabber’s trial hinges on the psychological evidence

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Judge Bruce R. Henry will decide if Anna L. Tang (left), the Wellesley student who stabbed Wolfe B. Styke ’11 (right) in October 2007, was too mentally ill to “appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.”
Photos by John A. Hawkinson—The Tech; Photoillustration by Jessica Liu­—THe Tech

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article gives wrong information about the minimum sentence Anna L. Tang might have received were she convicted. (Tang was judged not guilty on Dec. 8) Tang did not face a minimum of ten years in prison — there was no mandatory minimum for the charges she faced.

Anna L. Tang is mentally ill. Anna L. Tang stabbed Wolfe B. Styke ’11 seven times, but did not kill him.

On these facts, all sides agree. But what both sides differ over — what Judge Bruce R. Henry must decide — is how ill Tang is.

Or rather, how ill she was on the night of October 22, 2007, when she gained access to Styke’s dorm room and severely wounded him. She’s now charged with intent to murder, home invasion, and assault.

Did Tang lack “the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or the substantial capacity to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law?” That is the test of “criminal responsibility” in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Tang’s trial began in June of this year and came to a halt when the court-appointed forensic psychologist, Alison Fife, changed her opinion about Tang’s criminal responsibility and revised her written opinion of Tang. Fife’s change came after seeing the records of Tang’s visits with an independent psychotherapist, Lisa Desai, from the weeks prior to the stabbing.

In testimony yesterday, Fife said she did not change her decision without great thought and cause. “Stakes are very high,” she said. “This is as serious as it gets. I had been very convinced and I felt very badly for Ms. Tang.”

Fife said that Tang spoke to her “very freely” in their court-mandated interview, but didn’t tell her she had seen Desai four times. She also failed to mention the visit the day before the stabbing. And according to Desai’s notes, Tang didn’t mention feeling suicidal or wanting to kill Styke, all things she told Fife. That was “completely at odds with what I was hearing from her,” Fife testified.

Defense attorney Robert A. George said when he cross-examines her on Monday, “It’s going to be ugly for Fife.” Fife’s credibility is at issue not only because she changed her opinion, but also because she did so purely on the basis of Desai’s notes. “Her first diagnosis was correct,” George said.

The trial had resumed Wednesday and Thursday of this week. It will take a break today, and testimony is expected to finish on Monday, though closing statements may run into Tuesday. Judge Henry might have a decision ready by that time, or he might take weeks.

On Wednesday, Tang’s psychopharmocologist and treating physician Michael J. Mufson testified. Mufson, who began seeing Tang eight months after the stabbing, diagnosed Tang with “bipolar disorder with a mixed affective psychosis — a complicated way of saying she had gone through [a bipolar episode] in which she became psychotic and delusional.”

While at Wellesley, Tang had been diagnosed with depression, and began seeing mental health professionals there as early as September of 2005, over two years before the stabbing. She was prescribed Celexa, an antidepressant that belongs to a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inibitors.

According to Mufson, that was the wrong kind of drug. “It made her lows lower and her highs higher,” he said. “If anything, worsening it and precipitating psychotic symptoms.”

Mufson said that Tang told him she was immersed in feelings of being evil and needing to be incarcerated, and that was why she attacked Styke.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution has suggested Tang has been “malingering”: exaggerating her symptoms to avoid consequences in the legal system. Of course, this question is central to the case — if Tang could fool her doctors into thinking she was unwell when she wasn’t, she could evade punishment for her crime.

Yesterday, defense psychologist Eric L. Brown testified about the tests he administered to Tang. Both tests have sophisticated ways of detecting malingering, he said. The prosecution argued that Tang scored too high on measures of psychological unwellness, indicating that she might be faking some of her symptoms. Brown said Tang scored high because she was “in great distress.”

Now on Seroquel instead of Celexa, Tang seems like a normal intelligent woman. At lunch yesterday, she talked to American friends about their experiences learning Mandarin and discussed getting stuck trying to read The Lord of the Rings. If convicted, she faces a minimum of 10 years in prison, and perhaps as much 60 years if convicted on all charges.