Tang lawyers question Fife’s judgment

Psychologist at center of controversy on fifth day of Wellesley stabber’s trial

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The headline to this article erroneously states that Tang had multiple lawyers. She had only one lawyer. This article misspells the given name of the prosecutor. She is Assistant District Attorney Suzanne M. Kontz, not Susanne. The same mistake was also made in a web-only article about the trial that was published on June 16.

Yesterday, the Anna L. Tang trial entered its 5th day, and the entire day was spent on the testimony of one witness — arguably the most pivotal yet confusing witness of the entire trial — the prosecution’s Court-appointed forensic psychologist, Dr. Alison Fife. Under cross-examination, Fife’s credibility took several large hits.

Fife’s testimony is of such interest because early in the summer — before the trial came to an abrupt halt — she issued a written report to the Court saying that, based on mental illness, Tang was not able to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law. That would mean Tang was not criminally responsible — so called “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Tang, who has struggled with mental illness since childhood, stabbed Wolfe B. Styke ’11 in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2007 in Styke’s Next House dormitory room. Tang was a Wellesley College junior at the time.

For reasons that may be under dispute, Fife changed her opinion on June 29, 2010, on the eve of what was scheduled to be the last day of the trial. Fife issued a written report on June 30 saying that Tang could indeed conform her behavior to the requirements of the law.

Fife explained that she changed her opinion because she received notes from Dr. Lisa Desai, an independent therapist who Tang had been referred to in early October 2007, the same month of the stabbing. Over the summer, the prosecution alleged that Desai’s notes had been withheld from them by the defense, but the defense maintained they had been provided to the prosecution all along and the prosecution must have mislaid them.

In any case, the notes were again provided and Fife received them on June 29.

Under cross-examination from defense attorney Robert A. George yesterday, Fife discussed many other events that had happened between issuing her original opinion on May 3, 2010 and her revision on June 29.

Fife maintained that only Desai’s notes caused her to change her opinion. She said discrepancies between information reported by Tang in Desai’s notes and information reported by Tang directly to Fife caused Fife to question Tang’s credibility.

On Thursday, Fife had testified that the change was because Tang omitted the fact that she met with Desai 18 hours prior to the stabbing.

But yesterday, Fife said that it was instead the content of Desai’s notes, for example that Tang did not mention thoughts of suicide or thoughts of wanting to hurt Wolfe Styke throughout the month of October 2007. But she had told those things to Fife in March of 2010.

But between Fife’s report in May and the her revised report in June:

• Fife communicated to Assistant District Attorney Susanne M. Kontz, the prosecutor in the case, that perhaps she should consider getting a second opinion on Tang.

• Fife did not speak to Tang herself, for example to clarify discrepancies. Nor did Fife speak to Tang’s psychologist Dr. Eric L. Brown, her current treating therapist Dr. Liza Brooks, or her former therapist Dr. Lisa Desai.

• Fife did speak to Tang’s psychopharmacologist, Dr. Michael J. Mufson, but only about allegations that Mufson or George had called Fife “unethical”—the conversation did not discuss Tang herself, and Mufson denied the allegations, Fife said.

• Fife telephoned Wolfe Styke’s mother, Gwen Styke, around June 22, at Kontz’s request.

• Fife exchanged e-mail with Gwen Styke, where Styke explained her beliefs about Tang’s motivations.

Substantial courtroom time was spent on these details, and whether they represented an ethical problem. The net result was to call Fife’s credibility into question, not sufficiently to invalidate Fife’s testimony, necessarily, but enough to weaken it.

The defense noted that the wording of Styke’s e-mail and Fife’s amended report were “similar.” Fife agreed with that statement.

Gwen Styke’s e-mail said, “I think that it is clear it was hostility, rage, a desire to have control over him and his fate, and hurt from rejection that was the driving force for her attack against him.

Fife’s amended report said Tang’s behavior was “driven by her inadequate personality structure, her attachment issue, leaving her unable to manage rejection, and dealing with it by harming the person who rejected her.”

There is additional confusion about documentation in support of Fife’s initial May 3 report. For instance, that report reads, “Miss Tang had documented mood swings…”

When asked, she was unable to explain what documents she was referring to in her report. Her report had an appendix listing all the documents used in the production of the report, but Fife denied using them to produce that wording, saying she thought the information came from a self-report from Tang.

Defense attorney George asked, “Are you saying you were relying on no documents although you wrote ‘documented’?”

Fife replied, “I’m saying that I can’t be sure.”

George pointed out that the mood swings were clearly documented in the Wellesley College clinical record, but Fife maintained that she had not seen that record until after May 3rd.

Cross-examination of Fife will continue this morning.

Today is expected to be the last day of the trial, but the judge could take weeks to rule, if he feels it necessary. A police detective will testify about finding Tang on the night of the incident.

The trial takes place at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn, Mass.