Psychologist: Murder defendant’s actions consistent with brain malady

Vancouver man on trial in estranged girlfriend's stabbing death




Murder defendant Dennis Wolter’s actions the night he killed his estranged girlfriend in May 2011 were consistent with symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a defense expert testified Wednesday.

Wolter is accused of stabbing his estranged girlfriend, Kori Fredericksen, more than 70 times inside his home at 1205 W. 39th St. in Vancouver. He’s charged with aggravated first-degree murder, which requires prosecutors to prove premeditation and intent.

Wolter’s attorney, Therese Lavallee, has argued that Wolter has brain damage from a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as well as a traumatic brain injury sustained at age 18. She said the damage interfered with his ability to form intent.

In the fourth day of Wolter’s defense in Clark County Superior Court, Natalie Novick Brown, a clinical and forensic psychologist, testified that people with fetal alcohol disorders have brain damage. Wolter specifically has damage in four parts of his brain, she said. That includes the orbital frontal cortex, which operates executive functions. Conscious decision-making and self-regulation happen in the orbital frontal cortex and allow people to act in a socially appropriate manner.

“Individuals with this kind of brain damage tend to do pretty well in routine life situations … but when you throw something stressful or unexpected at them … they don’t know how to handle it,” Brown said.

She said routine activities could include playing games, such as poker. A defense psychiatrist, who diagnosed Wolter with the disorder, testified Tuesday in cross examination that poker-playing skills would be inconsistent with the disorder.

At an appointment with Brown, Wolter described what happened on the night of the murder on late May 25, 2011, or early May 26, 2011. In Brown’s words, this is what he said: Fredericksen came to his house and confronted him with a knife. He grabbed her arm and twisted it. She screamed, and he doesn’t remember what happened after that. The next thing he remembered was Camas police pulling him over on Evergreen Highway in Camas, when he found himself covered in blood.

He went on to tell Camas police a fabricated story to explain the blood, according to previous testimony. He said, according to testimony, that his dog, Charlie, had been run over in a game of fetch, and Wolter had transported the bleeding dog to the veterinarian’s office, where it had to be put down.

Brown said the fabricated story is consistent with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder because the brain damage can cause childlike behavior, such as concocting wild and unbelievable stories.

Leaving behind evidence of the murder, including a trail and pools of Fredericksen’s blood, five blood-stained knives and Fredericksen’s bloody, perforated sweater, suggests that Wolter didn’t plan the murder and wasn’t trying to cover it up. When he dumped Fredericksen’s body down a ravine along Southeast Evergreen Highway between Camas and Vancouver, he didn’t try to conceal the body, she said. That was about a mile away from where Wolter was pulled over by Camas police the same day for speeding.

Brown said Wolter showed signs of fetal alcohol syndrome as early as kindergarten, according to her review of his public school records.

She testified Wolter was expelled for unknown reasons in kindergarten.

By the fifth grade, he was in special education. School records show that his teachers had concerns that his communication and math skills were stalled, that he had a “bad attitude,” and he needed to improve his fine motor skills and visual memory. His sixth-grade teachers wrote that he failed to follow directions and that he got into “excessive fights with peers.” Teachers also noted that he had trouble with his personal hygiene.

His behavioral and academic troubles continued until he was placed in a Hazel Dell group home for teens with developmental disabilities, she said. The stability at that home provided him with two years of improvement between ages 14 and 16.

When he returned to live with his family, behavioral issues returned, Brown said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Richard Adler said he diagnosed Wolter with partial fetal alcohol syndrome. The “partial” condition causes brain damage and, in some cases, abnormal facial features. Full fetal alcohol syndrome includes both brain damage and all three of the facial features emblematic of the condition: small eye openings, a thin upper lip and a flat philtrum, the normally ridged area between the nose and the top of the lip.

Wolter’s brain damage sustained from the condition interferes with his ability to make judgments, plan, problem-solve, delay gratification, control his emotions, understand social nuances such as sarcasm, and form intent, Adler said.

Wolter also has mild abnormalities to his upper lip and philtrum, Adler said.

The prosecution’s cross-examination of Brown is expected when the trial resumes at 1 p.m. today. The trial is now expected to last through Monday, attorneys said Wednesday.

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