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The Trials of Mandla Dube 

During a mysterious psychotic episode, a South African filmmaker threatened to kill his children. Did our justice system protect his family over the next year — or simply destroy it?

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006
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By early February, the defense’s psych report was in hand. Submitted by USC forensic psychiatrist Kaushal K. Sharma, who had visited Mandla in jail, it was a relatively encouraging document. “The defendant’s behavior at the time of the . . . crime is consistent with a person who was having a psychotic episode,” Sharma wrote. Despite Mandla’s alleged statements to his passengers, the psychiatrist continued, “the defendant does meet the criteria for legal unconsciousness given the fact that his behavior was unlike his usual behavior and he had nothing to gain by his actions. He had no animosity towards his children or towards his two guests.”

Sharma also noted, however, that Mandla admitted to smoking marijuana on occasion, and that at the time of his arrest his blood had tested positive for THC. “It appears unlikely that the defendant’s behavior can be explained on the basis of marijuana use alone,” Sharma wrote, citing Mandla’s insistence that he had not gotten high for several days before the crash. (Tests cannot establish when a user took his last toke.) But he declined to speculate on what other factors might have been at work. Gyamfi hoped to find an expert who could fill in those blanks, and the prosecution wanted to commission its own psych report.

There may in fact be a scientifically plausible, drug-free explanation for Mandla’s bizarre behavior in Griffith Park, as I later discovered during an Internet search. During World War II, a University of Minnesota scientist named Dr. Ancel Keys (inventor of the K-Ration) wanted to know how food shortages might affect populations in the battle zone, so he put 36 volunteers on a semistarvation diet for six months. The results of the Minnesota Experiment, as it came to be called, were shocking. Many participants experienced hyperirritability and a feeling of dissociation from reality. Some were consumed with aggressive urges. One developed suicidal impulses and had to be hospitalized. Another chopped off three of his own fingers.

click to flip through (4) Illustrations by Jeff McMillan
  • Illustrations by Jeff McMillan
     
 

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Similar symptoms, as well as auditory hallucinations and megalomaniac and persecutory delusions, were later reported among crash dieters and anorexics. UCLA biological anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler, who has applied these findings to the study of religious mystics and hunger strikers, theorizes that disrupted serotonin levels are to blame. And when I spoke to him about Mandla’s episode, Fessler thought it sounded eerily familiar. “That’s right there in the literature, that kind of behavior,” he said. Mandla’s five-day fast might have been enough to unleash years of pent-up anger in a psychotic burst.

If the defense psychologist was aware of this, however, he didn’t mention it. And so the hearings wore on. Mandla began attempting to make speeches about his right to a speedy trial. “Your honor, may I say something?” he would commence, only to be silenced by Judge Revel, a sharp-featured woman with a beehive hairdo. She also admonished him to stop mouthing “I love you” to his wife in the visitors’ gallery.

The judge had a beef with Lindiwe and her coterie as well. “The last time you were here, the whole court reeked of incense,” she said one morning. “Would you stand in the back of the courtroom so my staff doesn’t get sick?” When Gyamfi asked if the group could sit on the last bench instead, Revel assented. Lindiwe — who was, in fact, wearing an African-style scented oil — resettled herself with her friends. But when the hearing ended, they burst into the hall with a flurry of comments that may be aptly described by the phrase “contempt of court.”

Nine months after the Griffith Park outing, Deputy D.A. Mire indicated to Mandla’s lawyer that she might consider a plea bargain, once her psychiatric expert had weighed in. Shortly afterward, the DCFS dropped its demand that Lindiwe sign a restraining order. But there were further complications. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had placed an immigration hold on Mandla, citing his expired visa; when the prosecutors finished with him, if he didn’t go to prison, he would be remanded to DHS custody.

Mandla, meanwhile, was pressing Gyamfi to demand a trial date. He had spent 25 days in the “hole,” a two-man punishment cell, for allegedly sassing a guard. He had not held his children in nearly a year. He was at the end of his rope, and he was driving his lawyer toward the end of hers. “Every morning,” Gyamfi said, “I’m waking up thinking about Mandla Dube before I think about getting a glass of water.”

Gyamfi, however, was not sure she could get more by going to trial than by waiting for an offer from Mire. The one academic expert she knew of who could testify convincingly on the cultural aspects of the case was out of the country, and she had not yet found an acceptable replacement. (Mandla’s father was paying his legal fees, and would eventually pour about $7,500 into his son’s defense.) And even if she could win acquittal on attempted murder, there were the child-abuse charges to contend with.

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