Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Murder in an Embassy, Part II — Paranoid Psychotic or Faked Insanity?


erdos2 I-ParanoidOn August 30, 1971, Alfred Erdos murdered his assistant, Donald Leahy, at the small American embassy in Equatorial Guinea. Delusional and paranoid, Erdos accused Leahy of being part of a massive Communist plot against the U.S., tied him to a chair in the communications vault, and stabbed him to death with a pair of scissors. While awaiting trial, he frightened secretaries at the State Department by waving a pair of scissors in front of them. His trial, however, brought to light alleged homosexual contact between the two men and questions about his apparent psychosis — had Erdos really gone mad, or was it all a fabrication to make the stabbing seem less heinous? Ambassador Hoffacker (who oversaw the embassy at Equatorial Guinea) details the contentious trial in this continuation of his account. You can read about the Murder and its prologue.

The United States of America v. Alfred Erdos

HOFFACKER:  On November 11, 1971, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia indicted Erdos for murder. He was arraigned on December 10 for the murder and pleaded not guilty. He was released on personal bond of $100,000 to the custody of Dr. David H. Framm of George Washington University hospital. The trial was set for February 28, 1972.

Erdos 2 gw old hospitalErdos was free to move outside the hospital and, on at least one occasion, visited the Department, where he frightened secretaries by brandishing a pair of scissors, apparently in jest. His humor was not appreciated.

Erdos’s attorney…moved to obtain the U.S. government’s assistance in sending defense representatives to Equatorial Guinea to gather further evidence and to determine the availability of testimony of more than 30 foreign nationals. He argued that the witnesses were essential to establish Erdos’s insanity. If witnesses could not be produced, the defense would seek to have the charges dismissed. Department representatives at the hearings stated that further efforts to gain permission for such investigation would be futile. Judge Lewis denied this request….

The trial of the U.S.A. v. Alfred Erdos finally got underway on February 28, 1972 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Judge Oren Lewis presiding.…

The prosecution presented three witnesses. Dr. William Enos, a pathologist, described the findings of the autopsy performed on Leahy, including a description of the multiple stab wounds, the cause of death and the presence of intact spermatozoa in the pharynx and esophagus. The defense vigorously protested Enos’s labeling this “a homosexual murder” on the grounds that this amounted to a legal opinion of the defendant’s guilt and his motive for killing Leahy. The judge ruled that Enos’s opinion should be accepted as testimony. This ruling may have been the deciding factor in the case because of the abhorrence of homosexuality in the moral climate of 1971 and in the minds of the jury.

At the conclusion of the prosecution’s case, the defense successfully moved to have the charge reduced from the premeditated murder to second-degree murder, based upon insufficient evidence of premeditation. Thus, the death sentence was ruled out….

The Defense — “Erdos was suffering from an acute paranoid psychosis”

The defense’s case consisted primarily of the testimony of the Erdoses….Erdos denied having had any homosexual contact with Leahy. Three communicators from Accra gave their account of the radio exchange with Erdos on the day of the murder. Marianne Cook, the Department’s desk officer for Equatorial Guinea, described the changing pattern of Erdos’ reporting in the pre-event period.…

The defense called two psychiatrists. Dr. David H. Framm, who had been retained by the Department to treat Erdos, testified that Erdos was suffering from an acute paranoid psychosis at the time he killed Leahy, which deprived Erdos of the mental capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct and the capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of law….

Dr. Framm stated that the onset of Erdos’ illness occurred on Sunday night, August 27, when Erdos, instead of interpreting reality as it existed, interpreted reality on the basis of a delusion that a plot existed. Thereafter, because of his illness, Erdos incorporated everyone and everything into the delusion, including Leahy, whom he believed he was killing in self-defense.

Dr. Leon Yochelson, a defense-retained psychiatrist, also testified that Erdos was suffering from an acute paranoid psychosis… Both doctors agreed that if a homosexual contact took place, it would have been consistent with his illness and would have occurred while he was suffering from the illness.…

The Prosecution’s Rebuttal — “Erdos was not suffering from any psychosis”

[Dr. Enos] stated that, given the condition of Leahy’s throat in his last stage, it would have been impossible for him to respond to Erdos’ question, “Is this the way it was supposed to be?” One of the communicators suspected that the “help” voiced during Erdos’ radio message was not from another person (i.e. Leahy) in the vault….

The prosecution’s final witnesses were two court-appointed psychiatrists, Dr. George D. Weickhardt and Dr. Emory Hodges. Both testified that Erdos was not suffering from a mental illness when he killed Leahy and that he had feigned a mental illness….Dr. Weickhardt testified:

“[Erdos] was not suffering from any psychosis…He was able to make rational decisions immediately following the death of Mr. Leahy. He directed his wife to go to the Cameroon embassy. He invited the Spanish Chargé to come to the chancery and had a discussion with him. He admitted his wife and son to the building and they then proceeded to the Nigerian embassy. A series of (such) rational decisions is inconsistent with acute paranoid psychosis…

“I think that there is good reason to believe that this [final] message was sent in order to cover up something else that had happened…It certainly had the earmarks of a homosexual situation…I think that (Erdos) certainly was in a nervous state but he had the ability to appreciate what he was doing…He had the mental capacity at the time of the killing to know that it was unlawful to kill another human being.”…

Erdos tied to a chair 4577658083_6a908a91d4_zIt was hard to believe, Hodges said, that a man would allow someone else to tie him up without more signs of struggle or opposition. “As I hear it, one man is quite passively letting someone else tie him up. I find this very difficult to believe and so I questioned his veracity.” Erdos did in fact stumble as he tried to explain, under aggressive questioning by the prosecutor, how he induced Leahy to sit in the vault chair, tied him up, operated the radio, and wielded the scissors, all in a reported insane frame of mind.…

He regarded Erdos as pretending and faking, “malingering insanity or psychosis.” Asked if there was consistency between the suspected homosexual act and a paranoid psychosis, Hodges could not agree with such connection….

Dr. Enos…stated that the presence and position of the sperm and the type and distribution of the wounds indicated a homosexual act. He expressed this in terms of medical certainty as a result of dealing with homicides and death of this type — “this was a homosexual murder.” …

Closing Arguments

In his closing argument, prosecutor Gettings restated his belief that there is no insanity in this case…. He called for a verdict of second degree murder as opposed to voluntary manslaughter. “It’s our theory that Erdos killed Leahy because they were involved in some homosexual activity together and thereafter he faked insanity to cover up his act of killing and to lead people to believe…that his act was not the act of a cold-blooded killer.” …Gettings attempted to demolish Erdos’ description of the activity within the vault, contending that Leahy was dead before the afternoon radio transmissions. The fact that Erdos registered no remorse for his action was brought to the jury’s attention….

erdos 2 CourtroomThe closing statement by the defense…raised again the defense’s inability to have the judge admit as evidence the coded tape of a cable sent by Erdos to Washington the morning of the event and said that that message proved that Erdos had conceived of the Communist plot before the slaying occurred.

In rebutting the closing defense arguments, attorney Gettings said,…”The only logical explanation of what happened here was that Leahy was dead sometime between 12:00 and 1:45 p.m. and at 1:45 his method of covering all this up and of faking insanity” began. “With respect to Mrs. Erdos, does it really accord with common sense that she would sit in the dark for at least a half hour with a mad man, with a two-and-half-year-old child running around?…Her entire account of that day is not only unreasonable, illogical, it is impossible.”…

The defense claimed that in the judge’s instruction to the jury he downgraded the effect of the Equatorial Guinea situation….Combined with the language directing the jury to disregard the political situation and diplomatic relations with Equatorial Guinea, the instruction effectively destroyed Erdos’ defense of insanity.”… Attorney McDaniels also made a major issue over the absence of a burn bag message (Erdos’ apparent last writing), which was not introduced. The judge’s reply: “I ruled. If I made a mistake I’m sorry. There is no use to continue re-arguing it. Take it down to Richmond (the Circuit Court).”…

The Verdict

The court was recessed at 2:15 p.m., Friday, March 4 awaiting the jury’s decision. At 4:20 p.m. the jury asked for definitions of second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, and the judge gave them. At 4:35 p.m. the jury indicated that it had reached a verdict and entered the courtroom at 4:45 p.m. After Erdos was directed to stand, the clerk read the jury’s decision: Alfred Erdos guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The jury was dismissed at 4:46 p.m….

The judge sentenced Erdos to “confinement for 10 years.” Erdos was released pending the appeal, using the personal bond which had been produced earlier. Erdos was confined to the general Metropolitan Washington area. The court adjourned at 5:03 p.m.

After the Trial — Retirement with a Pension

erdos 2 Springfield Med Center for Fed PrisonersThe Erdoses moved to San Diego after the conviction and Erdos continued his psychiatric treatment. Even before Erdos entered prison (Springfield Medical Center for Federal Prisoners) on November 8, 1973, Jean Erdos joined the Foreign Service, doing consular work. She changed her name to Jean Davis Bradley, taking her first husband’s surname. The Erdoses lived separately although they did not divorce. Erdos was given a medical disability retirement with a pension. This bothered some Service personnel.

As it evolved, Erdos served about one and a half years of his 10-year sentence and settled in San Diego until his death on March 10, 1982. Cause of his death was “myocardial infarction.”… He was 58 years old at the time of his death….

Reflections on the Case

The case boils down to a debate between two theories: (1) feigned insanity involving a homosexual murder (the prosecution with two court-appointed psychiatrists) and (2) temporary insanity with or without a homosexual act (the defense with its two psychiatrists).

My initial reaction to the event, i.e., after I helped piece together evidence and spoke with colleagues on the ground, was that this was a case of madness (insanity) brought on by the collapse of a man under heavy emotional strain. I had a limited role at the trial. Because I was a witness, I was not allowed in the courtroom prior to my testimony, and I was briefed extensively by the defense, which had called me as a witness.…

I have since analyzed most of the documentation on the case. Some crucial pieces are missing because they are lost or otherwise unavailable for my research. This, of course, is frustrating. Nonetheless, I now have a more complete picture of the men involved and of the trial itself.…

I still find it difficult to dismiss the possibility that the murder occurred in the context of a catathymic crisis, i.e., insanity that may occur in relation to homosexuality.…

The jury remains, in effect, faceless. I found no way to profile jury members, as is the practice today. Jury members were apparently impacted heavily not only by the savagery of the murder but also by the homosexual action which seemed to have occurred in that context. There was virtually no discussion of whether such activity was at least partially consensual or whether Leahy possibly wished to terminate such activity. Nevertheless, the opprobrium attached to homosexuality in those days (1971-72) was certainly felt by the jury, and the prosecution played this to the hilt….

erdos 2 Judge OrenAttorneys McDaniels and Daniel…hit frequent hurdles with a judge who routinely overruled their objections. He did so brusquely and did not always give the rationale for his denials. I did my best not to be overly influenced by Judge Lewis’ arbitrary, if not arrogant, demeanor, but I could not resist the temptation to acknowledge his apparent reputation as a “hanging judge.” The Circuit Court did not agree with this view and dismissed the defense’s argument that Erdos was not given a fair trial. I remain disturbed by such decisions as the judge’s refusing to admit relevant (he called it irrelevant) testimony and other evidence, his ruling regularly against the defense on one objection or another, and his telling Erdos before the sentencing that he did not believe him.…

In all fairness, it must be said that the Department, at my urging, pressed the judge to do nothing which would violate confidence disclosed by Erdos’ diplomatic colleagues. Nor did we want to disturb whatever relations we maintained with the Equatorial Guinea government. We also asked the judge to protect Guinean sources who could be capriciously eliminated were they to be connected with the U.S. government. If the judge denied submission of evidence in these categories, he could have made such rationale evident to the jury or to others attending the trial. His normal denial of such evidence was done harshly, leaving an impression of arrogance and arbitrariness.

The Burn Bag Message

A major issue was the two-page decoded message prepared from the tape recovered from the burn bag. The defense said it was the lengthy message which Erdos was preparing with Leahy the morning of the murder. The defense called this message “perhaps the defense’s single most important exhibit….[It] clearly expresses Erdos’ delusionary state of mind and many of the ideas which he transmitted over the radio later in the afternoon. Since Leahy apparently did the coding, it demonstrates that Leahy was alive when these thoughts were expressed. Moreover, the method of the message preparation — coding — and its complex contents indicating specific review of previous arguments makes untenable the government’s argument that between noon and 1:45 p.m. Erdos killed Leahy, concocted the cover up and conceived its form….

The court never explicitly made clear the basis for its consistent refusal to admit the document. As noted, the Circuit Court regarded this argument “without merit.” Incidentally the District Court judge denied admission of 14 other messages on grounds of “confidential information which has no relevance in this case.” He also refused to admit evidence from Lannon Walker that a Minister said that Equatorial Guinean Ambassador Watson, under torture, claimed that the U.S. government and Erdos were plotting against the Equatorial Guinean government. The judge’s retort: “That is another peg that you’ve got to rely on when you get to Richmond.” Judge Lewis was not schooled in diplomacy or foreign relations and he gave no indication of his desire to be schooled in those disciplines.

A lawyer involved in the case is of the opinion that the jury felt that in the light of the heinous nature of the crime, they thought they should do something. They settled for the lowest feasible punishment — voluntary manslaughter with a maximum of 10 years of confinement. As it turned out, Erdos was released in a year and a half.

Final Thoughts on the Ordeal

Those of us involved in Erdos’ assignment were keenly conscious of the pressures involved in that job, and we had no reason to believe that cool, unflappable Al would cave in under those pressures. We could not foresee the homosexual stress identified by a pathologist after the event. His [Erdos’] predecessor performed admirably for two and a half years under similar (except homosexual) pressures, and we expected Erdos to do as well. Nonetheless, I hope that the Department will review the Erdos case with a view to detecting in others such weaknesses as Erdos manifested before and during the event and will revise its assignment procedures accordingly. A former American employee at the embassy in Santa Isabel took an initiative immediately after the murder to prod the Department to review the process of such assignments.

I regret that I was not in Yaounde [Cameroon] when Erdos sounded his alarm on August 30. Had I been there, I, one of the few apparently outside Erdos’ “conspiracy,” would have gotten through to him and told him to sit tight until I got there. Of course, under the theory of his feigning insanity, it might have been too late. Nevertheless, I would have flown immediately to Santa Isabel and would have dealt with a somewhat different scenario from that which Walker, Shurtleff, Graves, and others on that fine team, none of whom knew Equatorial Guinea, faced….

Erdos Equatorial Guinea MapIn retrospect, if Erdos had been in a larger post — say, Yaounde — other Americans would probably have detected his mental deterioration and would have taken immediate steps to treat him locally or ship him out to our medical facilities, as we occasionally had to do with those who broke under the strain of some foreign environments. No such option was available in Santa Isabel as Erdos said goodbye to the last American citizen and tried to settle down at his home opposite the police station, where prisoners loudly voiced their torture.

This troubled man collapsed under emotional strain which was beyond his ability to resist. I am still bewildered why, to the best of my knowledge, he could not have found some way to register remorse for this dastardly act to extend some sort of sympathy to Leahy’s widow. In her near-insane despair, she might have rejected such a gesture, but he should have proffered it nonetheless.

In my Monday morning quarter-backing, I have filled in important gaps in my knowledge of the case. I have not, however, reached any hard and fast conclusions to contradict the actual outcome. I doubt that the missing documentation — the medical, security, and personnel files of the two parties concerned and the celebrated burn bag message — would cast significant new light on the case. I am therefore more or less satisfied that I have pulled together most pieces in the drama. I shall leave it to others to voice their opinion or to revise the text.

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