Accused criminals have used some wild excuses to explain away their crimes. Ethan Couch said he suffered from “affluenza.” Dan White blamed junk food (well, not exactly). But perhaps the most controversial defense to this day is dissociative identity disorder (DID)—previously known as multiple personality disorder.
There’s an enormous amount of suspicion surrounding dissociative identity disorder. Psychiatrists believe that people who suffer from this condition splinter their personality to deal with a trauma, often childhood abuse. By this definition, someone with DID could conceivably commit a horrific crime and not even know it—because one of their “multiples” or “alters” did it instead.
Skeptics believe criminals lie about having this disorder to avoid consequences, and it probably doesn’t help that characters in pulpy movies like Fight Club, Identity, and M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Split all have it. Still, some courts have accepted this plea, as three of these real-life cases show. But the other two prove that DID remains a highly contentious legal defense.
1. BILLY MILLIGAN
Most people trace the multiple personality defense back to Billy Milligan. Milligan was hauled into court in 1978 on several counts of rape, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping. His case soon garnered national attention when his lawyers pursued a plea of insanity, arguing that two different personalities had committed the crimes—not Milligan. This defense was highly unusual for the time, but it worked. Milligan was found not guilty, and the judge committed him to a psychiatric hospital. He escaped for four months in 1986, was released in 1991, and died from cancer in 2014.
Psychiatrists have suggested that Milligan had as many as 24 personalities, including a Yugoslavian munitions expert and a 3-year-old girl. Milligan’s life was also the subject of a nonfiction book, The Minds of Billy Milligan, which has long been in movie development. And if Leonardo DiCaprio has his way, he’ll be starring as Milligan.
2. JUANITA MAXWELL
Juanita Maxwell’s legal problems began in 1979, when she was charged with beating a 73-year-old woman to death. The murder occurred at the hotel where Maxwell worked as a maid and where the woman in question, Inez Kelly, lived. But Maxwell insisted that she hadn’t killed Kelly; her brasher personality, Wanda Weston, had. Whereas Maxwell came off as quiet and prim, Weston was chatty and bragged about smoking weed. She had no problem admitting on the witness stand that she had bludgeoned Kelly with a lamp, because the woman refused to return a pen. Maxwell’s transformation on the stand spooked onlookers, and the court found her not guilty by reason of insanity.
Maxwell was committed to a mental ward, with the full support of her husband, Sammy. Yet in 1988, soon after she was released, she landed in jail for robbing two banks in St. Petersburg, Florida. By that point, she had seven personalities, but Wanda was still pinned as the culprit of the crimes.
3. BILLY JOE HARRIS
When Billy Joe Harris was arrested in 2011, police called him “one of the most wanted men in Texas.” Others knew him as the “Twilight Rapist,” for his early morning assaults on elderly and disabled women. His DNA linked him to multiple attacks and burglaries spanning two years and several counties. Harris insisted he was not a serial rapist, though; rather, it was one of his alters.
According to Psychology Today, Dr. Colin Ross testified in court that he believed Harris had dissociative identity disorder, with reservations. He said he questioned Harris’s insanely high scores on the screening tests for DID—which were administered by the defense attorney, not Ross—and had caught Harris in lies about his personal life. Clearly, everyone else in the courtroom had suspicions, too. Some jurors suppressed laughter when Harris became “Bobby,” another one of his alleged personalities, on the stand. Worse still, he was recorded in a phone call to his girlfriend bragging about putting on a “good show” in court.
The judge tossed out Ross’s testimony and the jury convicted Harris. He received a life sentence, which he has tried to appeal—so far with no success.
4. DWAYNE WILSON
The case against Dwayne Wilson began on September 20, 2005, when his nephew, Paris, called the police. The boy explained that his uncle had stabbed him, his brother, his sister, and his mother in their New Jersey home. Paris was the only survivor.
When Wilson’s hearings commenced four years later, his lawyer argued that one of the defendant’s three personalities, “Kiko,” had actually committed the murders and that Wilson could not be held responsible for the crimes. But the judge rejected this argument and sentenced Wilson to 40 years in prison.
5. THOMAS HUSKEY
Thomas Huskey was known as “Zoo Man” among prostitutes in Tennessee, because he used to work in the elephant barn at Knoxville Zoo. But this whimsical nickname turned sinister when Huskey was charged with a string of murders. He confessed to killing four women, and was accused of raping and robbing two more. Police also recovered jewelry they believed Huskey had taken off his victims’ bodies as “souvenirs.” Huskey’s attorneys, however, insisted that their client had not confessed, kept trophies, or done anything wrong. The perpetrator was “Kyle,” his alternate personality.
The first jury to hear this case could not reach a consensus on the murder, and the prosecution eventually gave up those charges. But Huskey was convicted of the rapes he committed before the murders, and sentenced to 64 years in prison. The Knoxville News Sentinel called his case one of the most expensive in state history.