Wayne Treacy, the Pompano Beach teenager charged with attempted first-degree murder for brutally beating and nearly killing a Deerfield Beach Middle School student in March 2010, began his insanity defense in Broward Criminal Court on Wednesday, with defense attorneys calling to the witness stand a forensic psychologist who testified that the boy suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.
But a state prosecutor aggressively cross-examined the psychologist, forcing him to admit that he relied on the diagnoses of others in a 28-page report on Treacy’s mental health, and challenging assertions that the boy was legally insane when he attacked Josie Lou Ratley by shoving her to the ground at a school bus stop, and repeatedly slamming her head against the concrete, and then kicking her in the head while wearing steel-toed boots.
“As Wayne Treacy sits here today, do you consider him legally insane?’’ Maria Schneider, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case, asked the psychologist on the witness stand, Dr. Phil Heller.
“No,’’ Heller said.
Heller, a clinical and forensic psychologist, said he interviewed Treacy at least nine times between April and October 2011, and found the Pompano Beach teenager to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.
Heller said Treacy was a bright boy with no violent past who excelled at school and faced a promising future until the day he witnessed the suicide of his older brother, Michael Bell, in October 2009.
Bell hung himself with an electrical chord from a tree in the parking lot of the New Covenant Church in Pompano Beach on a Saturday morning — a grisly scene happened upon by Treacy, who was on his way to the beach to celebrate his recent 15th birthday, testified the boy’s mother, Donna Powers.
Heller said Bell was “the father figure that Wayne needed.’’
“Michael Bell was his coach,’’ he said. “He would believe in him.’’
After witnessing his brother hanging from a tree, Heller said, something deep within Treacy changed.
Treacy began to experience classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, Heller said, including nightmares, recurrent flashbacks, ranting tantrums, lack of sleep and skittishness.
He said Treacy had no memory of his attack on Ratley, either, and called that a clear sign of amnesia — another symptom of PTSD.
Heller added that Treacy’s PTSD manifested itself in other psychological disorders, including “dissociation” and “depersonalization, where you feel that you’re watching your life on TV, or you feel like you’re invisible. You’re just not part of life.’’
The trigger that set off Treacy on a violent rampage, Heller said, was Ratley’s text message to Treacy telling him to “go visit your dead brother.’’
“When he saw that text message,’’ Heller said, “...that horrific trauma that he saw five months before had now come back.’’
Yet, according to a log of messages exchanged between the two in the hours leading up to the attack, Treacy had threatened Ratley at least twice before she sent the text message about his brother.
But Heller insisted that Ratley’s text message about Treacy’s dead brother launched the boy into a “dissociative’’ episode, almost as if he were in a trance.
Heller said the episode built up like a wave inside of Treacy, until it crested with the violence against Ratley.
Treacy broadcast his intentions with multiple text messages to Ratley and his friends.
But Heller said Treacy was simply “venting” and he never intended to physically hurt Ratley.
“He did not plan for this,’’ Heller said.
Schneider questioned Heller on the arc of Treacy’s alleged episode, asking if the boy had been insane when he sent the text messages threatening to “strangle the life” out of Ratley and kill her, or if he had been insane when he put on a pair of black fighting gloves and steel-toed boots and rode his bicycle to go find Ratley, or if he had been insane when he waited for her at Deerfield Middle School.
The legal definition of insanity in Florida is that because of a mental disorder, a defendant does not know what he is doing, or does not know that what he is doing is wrong.
“Was he legally insane?’’ Schneider asked Heller of Treacy.
“Exactly at that moment, I’m not sure,’’ Heller said. “But I know that at the moment of the crime, he was.’’
Schneider also questioned how Heller could label Treacy’s threats as “venting” when they preceded a savage beating that nearly killed Ratley.
She accused Heller of dismissing Treacy’s threats as “venting,’’ yet believing the boy’s claims that he could not recall the attack.
Still, Heller insisted that Treacy truly was mentally anguished, and said he had been placed on suicide watch at least four times since his incarceration immediately following the attack. But Schneider rebuffed the assertion.
Leading up to the opening of Treacy’s defense, Schneider had presented a witness who testified that someone using Treacy’s computer profile had searched Google the night before the attack using the terms “how to commit murder” and “how to kill someone.’’
Jeanne Burtnett, a computer forensic technician for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said she examined Treacy’s home computer and found the online searches had taken place at three separate times between 10 and 10:15 p.m. on March 16, 2010.
Treacy’s defense attorneys had moved to exclude that information from the trial because, they said, it would confuse jurors, and because it was irrelevant to the case. But Schneider argued that the searches would prove Treacy’s predisposition to commit murder.
Broward Circuit Judge David A. Haimes ruled that the jury can hear the evidence.
Prosecutors rested their case without ever calling Ratley to the witness stand.
Russell Williams, Treacy’s defense attorney, said he expects to call additional medical experts to testify in Treacy’s defense on Thursday.
It is unknown whether Treacy will take the stand in his own defense. If convicted of attempted first-degree murder, Treacy faces a potential 50-year prison sentence.