Seattle Times special report: Twisted ethics of an expert witness
Stuart Greenberg was at the top of his profession: a renowned forensic psychologist who in court could determine which parent got custody of a child, or whether a jury believed a claim of sexual assault. Trouble is, he built his career on hypocrisy and lies, and as a result, he destroyed lives, including his own.
Seattle Times staff reporters
The reporting for this storyTo uncover the secrets Stuart Greenberg had buried, The Seattle Times got court files unsealed in the superior courts of King and Thurston counties. Through a motion filed by the state Attorney General's Office, the newspaper also got an order lifted that barred public inspection of Greenberg's disciplinary history. Reporters obtained other documents — for example, Greenberg's emails at the University of Washington — through public-records requests, and interviewed colleagues of Greenberg, as well as parents he had evaluated.
Earlier this year, a four-page document with a bland title, "Stipulation for Dismissal with Prejudice," was filed in a civil matter percolating on the King County Courthouse's ninth floor. Hardly anyone took notice. Most everyone had moved on.
But that document — filed by lawyers tangled up in the estate of Stuart Greenberg, a nationally renowned psychologist whose life ended in scandal — signaled the end of a tortuous undertaking.
Greenberg had proved such a toxic force — a poison coursing through the state's court system — that it took more than three years for lawyers and judges to sift through his victims and account for the damage done.
For a quarter century Greenberg testified as an expert in forensic psychology, an inscrutable field with immense power. Purporting to offer insight into the human condition, he evaluated more than 2,000 children, teenagers and adults. His word could determine which parent received custody of a child, or whether a jury believed a claim of sexual assault, or what damages might be awarded for emotional distress.
At conferences and in classrooms, in Washington and beyond, he taught others to do what he did. He became his profession's gatekeeper, quizzing aspirants, judging others' work, writing the national-certification exam. His peers elected him their national president.
But his formidable career was built upon a foundation of hypocrisy and lies. In the years since Greenberg's death, while court officials wrestled over his estate, The Seattle Times worked to unearth Greenberg's secrets, getting court records unsealed and disciplinary records opened.
Those records are a testament to Greenberg's cunning. They show how he played the courts for a fool. He played state regulators for a fool. He played his fellow psychologists for a fool. And were it not for a hidden camera, he might have gotten away with it.Stripped of all defenses
In summer 1984, Cathy Graden, a 27-year-old surgical nurse from Woodinville, was summoned to King County Superior Court for an emergency hearing in her child-custody case.
Her lawyer said a psychologist's report was behind the hearing. But Graden wasn't allowed to read the report. Nor was she allowed in the courtroom while the psychologist testified.
The psychologist, Stuart Greenberg, had been hired to help resolve a custody dispute involving Graden's only child, a 4-year-old boy whose bright, goopy finger-paintings Graden taped up all over the house.
Although appointed by the court, Greenberg was paid by the parties. He had interviewed the boy and both parents, and run a half-dozen tests with impressive names (the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist, the Michigan Screening Profile of Parenting ... ).
Graden figured she had nothing to fear. She taught Sunday school; she did volunteer work; she had taken care of her son when the boy's father moved to Alaska after the couple's divorce. "I thought there was no way I could possibly lose this," she says.
Greenberg had arrived in Seattle five years earlier, hired by the University of Washington. A letter written by the department chairman called Greenberg a "last-minute replacement" for a psychology professor who'd resigned. Greenberg's credentials "were on hand," because he'd applied for some other position.
His credentials were acceptable but not extraordinary. He had a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, where his thesis was a word salad: "Stimulus and Response Generalization of Classes of Imitative and Non-imitative Behavior as a Function of Reinforcement, Task, Cues, and Number of Therapists." On Washington's psychology licensing test, one examiner marked Greenberg's professional judgment as "good," his knowledge and skills, "okay."
Teaching, Greenberg earned just $15,300 his first year. His second year, he was assigned only a single evening class. He left the university and moved into private practice. He picked up court appointments in Western Washington as a custody investigator, expert evaluator, arbiter, mediator, guardian ad litem, special master. He became enmeshed in the court system, buddying up to lawyers, judges, fellow experts.
On the stand, he radiated confidence. "He was just kind of a notch above the rest of us," says Nick Wiltz, a fellow forensic psychologist. "He was able to present reports and information in a very powerful way."
But Greenberg also demonstrated dubious judgment and a cavalier attitude toward his ethical obligations, which forbade even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In the early 1980s, Greenberg befriended Stanley Stone, who worked in King County as a family-law commissioner — a position akin to judge with the power to appoint experts and approve their fees. On the side, Stone speculated in oil and gas, wooing investors with fantastical claims about the fortunes to be made by digging holes in Kansas.
Although Stone likewise needed to avoid conflicts of interest, his investors included lawyers and expert witnesses who appeared regularly in family court. One of his biggest investors was Greenberg. The psychologist put in $41,250 — expecting, years hence, a whopping return of $891,000 — and encouraged other courthouse regulars to invest, saying he had "the utmost confidence" in Stone, a good friend.
When the investment vehicle went up in smoke, some investors sued, making the enterprise public. Afterward, Stone says, lawyer disciplinary officials admonished him for a breach of ethics. Greenberg could also have been vulnerable to disciplinary action, but his Department of Health licensing file shows no evidence of that ever happening.
Cathy Graden didn't know about any of this. Nor did she know that her ex-husband's lawyer was also an investor, coming on board after Greenberg touted the potential rewards to her. That made them limited business partners — her ex's lawyer and the expert witness who would testify about her parenting.
The report Greenberg filed in court eviscerated Graden. It said she posed a grave danger to her son; that she was "probably" sexually abusing him; that she was psychologically unstable and possibly paranoid. Greenberg's report said he had interviewed the boy's day-care provider — and this provider suspected Graden of abuse and said Graden had encouraged day-care employees to beat her son.
In court, testifying, Greenberg described Graden as "quasi-psychotic," but said the diagnosis was tricky, because Graden might appear "quite normal." She would likely deny doing anything wrong to her son, Greenberg said, or alternatively, she "might genuinely not remember."
By the time Greenberg finished, Graden, out in the hallway, had been stripped of all defenses — and without a clue to what had just happened. If she appeared normal — well, Greenberg said she would. If she denied hurting her son — that was part of her disorder. If she challenged Greenberg's work or motives — she was paranoid.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Donald Haley said: "The doctor has convinced the court." The judge ordered the boy turned immediately over to his father, with Graden allowed to visit only if supervised by a therapist.
Greenberg was accustomed to such influence. Do judges follow your recommendations? he was once asked. "Typically," he said.
But in this case, Graden refused to go away. She obtained a copy of Greenberg's report. She interviewed the people he quoted. She wore a hidden recorder while meeting with him.
And what she learned, she turned over to state disciplinary officials.
The day-care provider, Krista McKee, told The Times that Greenberg "took what I said and just turned it upside down. He made it sound like I said something about Cathy that I just did not say. I never thought Cathy beat or abused (her son) at any level."
Greenberg also mischaracterized what the boy's therapist told him, twisting benign commentary into an urgent call for the boy to be removed from his mother's care.
Greenberg's work violated a host of ethics rules and laws. If he suspected Graden's son was being abused, he was required to report that to police or Child Protective Services. But he'd done no such thing.
Most disturbing of all, Graden's was not an isolated case.
In 1990, after an investigation that dragged on for years, the state Examining Board of Psychology filed a devastating set of disciplinary charges against Greenberg. The charges, 18 pages long, alleged misconduct in four cases between 1983 and 1986, including Graden's.
The board accused Greenberg of being incompetent and unethical. Of being dishonest or corrupt. Of misusing psychological tests and misrepresenting the results. He was accused of demonstrating bias; reaching sweeping conclusions on hearsay; violating confidentiality; and ignoring damning information about one parent while loading up on another.
In one custody case, he conducted a bizarre analysis of the father's new wife, a flight attendant. He reviewed some letters she may have written (although Greenberg wasn't sure), and some photos of the father's son with temporary tattoos — birds and a dragon, on his shoulders and belly button.
Based on those dubious materials, Greenberg concluded that the woman showed signs of a personality disorder: "Highly abstract thinking, schizoid mentation, hysteroid defense mechanisms, and / or exhibitionistic style." He never interviewed her, or the father, or the son.
Greenberg could have fought the board's allegations. Instead, he admitted violating professional guidelines in each of the four cases. He had been seeing a therapist for four years, he told the board, because he was "unable to fully empathize" with parents in child-custody cases and was not sensitive enough to the impact of his opinions.
The board and Greenberg agreed on a severe punishment: a three-year suspension from doing parenting evaluations. Afterward, he could resume only if the board was convinced he was competent.
Graden got her son back in 1989, when the boy's father died in a work accident. Her son was 4 years old when taken away, 9 when he returned.Saying one thing, doing another
In 1992, prosecutors for the U.S. Air Force asked Greenberg to be an expert witness in the court-martial of a sergeant accused of raping his 15-year-old stepdaughter. Because Greenberg's suspension applied only to child-custody cases, he accepted.
In articles published in professional journals, Greenberg distinguished forensic psychology from therapy: the latter assists a patient, the former, a judge or jury.
Forensic psychologists should avoid psychiatric diagnoses, Greenberg wrote. In therapy, patients have reason to be honest. That's because they want help. But in court settings, they have incentive to lie. A criminal defendant might want to seem insane, and a parent fighting for custody, as normal as can be.
People taking psychological tests can surmise which answers will lead to which results, Greenberg wrote. Attaching a diagnostic category to someone's description of unverifiable feelings provides "unjustified credibility."
One particular diagnosis — post-traumatic-stress disorder — is especially prone to abuse, Greenberg wrote. Someone claims to have experienced something horrific, and describes symptoms consistent with distress. A clinician diagnoses PTSD. In court, this diagnosis gets used "in a circular argument" to prove the horrific event occurred.
Greenberg preached caution. He practiced something else.
In the Air Force case, Greenberg had the stepdaughter take the Beck Depression Inventory — 22 questions, multiple choice. The first question: 1. I do not feel sad; 2. I feel sad; 3. I am sad all the time and I can't snap out of it; 4. I am so sad or unhappy that I can't stand it. She chose 3. He had her take the Beck Hopelessness Scale — 20 questions, true or false. Question 7: My future seems dark to me. She marked true.
After eight tests and 10 hours of interviews, Greenberg diagnosed the teenager with post-traumatic-stress disorder. (He charged the Air Force $12,360 for this work.)
To Sverre Staurset, the sergeant's lawyer, Greenberg was key to the prosecution's case. He vouched for the stepdaughter's credibility — believe him, you believe her.
Unbeknown to Greenberg, Staurset had rounded up the state disciplinary documents in which Greenberg admitted to conduct both incompetent and unethical. With those records, the lawyer destroyed Greenberg on the stand.
"It was worse than a deer in headlights," Staurset says. "He really came apart. There was nothing left of him."
With Greenberg discredited, the sergeant was acquitted.
For an expert witness, credibility is everything. Greenberg knew that if those disciplinary records remained available, his future looked dim.Hiding his past
A missing sentence. That's what made all the difference — that, and the state's lack of mettle.
During the disciplinary proceedings, Greenberg had signed a five-page stipulation admitting that he had misquoted witnesses, misinterpreted test results, reached damning conclusions on flimsy foundations. But the document was also supposed to say: "That by entering into this agreement, Dr. Greenberg does not admit to any violation of statute or administrative rules governing the practice of psychology."
"That is boilerplate," says Terry West, who was the Examining Board of Psychology's program manager at the time. "That's standard language in any stipulation."
A lawyer for the state dropped the sentence while merging some documents. Boilerplate or not, that missing language represented an opening — and Greenberg seized it. He let the state know he was thinking of suing. The examining board caved.
Nick Wiltz, the board's chairman when Greenberg was suspended, says: "The thing dragged on and on and on. Then, suddenly, because of this error by this inept assistant attorney general, the case blew up completely."
In spring 1993, the board's departing chairman, David Gossett, wrote an open apology to Greenberg, published in the board's newsletter. Greenberg had been "exonerated" of "all allegations," Gossett wrote. The apology asked "all persons" who had kept an earlier board publication describing Greenberg's suspension to return their copies or destroy them.
For Greenberg, this wasn't enough. The agency's paper trail was still publicly available, meaning he might still be confronted on the witness stand with his past admissions.
So Greenberg went to court, asking for the state to be barred from releasing any records about his past suspension. In a remarkable twist, the Examining Board of Psychology joined in this request. Here was a public body — represented by another public body, the state Attorney General's Office — asking the courts to forbid the state from complying with its public-records requirements.
In King County, Judge R. Joseph Wesley refused to go along. So Greenberg went south, to Thurston County. In 1995, Judge Daniel Berschauer agreed to place the state's records off-limits to the public; also sealed was the entire court file describing Greenberg's secrecy request.
Within a year of getting his disciplinary history sealed, Greenberg was giving seminars to other psychologists on the ethics of parenting evaluations.
Greenberg also fended off another kind of challenge. Cathy Graden, the mother who temporarily lost her son, sued Greenberg, accusing him of falsifying evidence against her. But Greenberg cited a decades-old principle — that, as a court-appointed expert, he was entitled to the same "absolute immunity" accorded judges — and Graden dropped her suit, figuring it was doomed.
Greenberg used the same argument to squelch other lawsuits. He became such an expert on this shield that the American Psychological Association would ask him to deliver an address on: "The Liability and Immunity of the Expert Witness."'Laundering priests'
Although Greenberg attracted a lot of work, his judgment raised doubts.
The Roman Catholic Church sent priests accused of sexual abuse to Greenberg, to get his take on whether they could be returned to ministry without endangering congregants.
"He was really the go-to guy for the Archdiocese of Seattle, and for the Jesuits, when it came to evaluating and laundering priests," says Ken Roosa, an Anchorage attorney who has represented hundreds of people suing the church.
The enterprise was shrouded in secrecy, making it hard to say how many priests Greenberg evaluated. Asked during one lawsuit, Greenberg estimated "10 to 15."
What's clear is how easily one priest deceived Greenberg.
In 1993, the Jesuits sent Father Jim Poole to see the psychologist. Greenberg interviewed Poole for 10 hours and administered nine tests. Poole admitted violating his vow of chastity, but only to the extent of kissing and sexual touching with women.
Greenberg wrote reports saying he believed Poole was being honest and that therapy arranged by the Jesuits had "substantially remedied" his problems. "I must say that I do not think that he is conning me or himself," Greenberg wrote.
But in recommending that Poole be returned to ministry, Greenberg missed the most horrendous aspects of Poole's history. The Jesuits would later settle more than a dozen lawsuits that accused Poole, decades earlier, of raping or molesting girls as young as 6.
Poole denied raping anyone but admitted French-kissing one child dozens of times, saying: "I found it a way of trying to get across how much she was loved."
Confronted, in a lawsuit, about his misreading of Poole, Greenberg said: "The data is that psychologists are no better than anyone else at determining when someone's lying based on interview."
Greenberg also lacked judgment around the office, some employees say. Jacquie Pickrell, a psychologist who worked for Greenberg in the mid-1990s, says he violated boundaries with women employees and seemed a "narcissist."
One morning he came into the office, looking horrible. He told Pickrell he'd had a dreadful night. He described vomiting — "in horrid detail," Pickrell says — while a foot from her face.
When Pickrell advised him to go home, or at least not infect others, Greenberg went into his office, shut the door, and pouted. The next day he told Pickrell she had hurt his feelings, that he was sick and had needed a hug.
Two other women employees described being "weirded" or "creeped out" by Greenberg. One said he rubbed her shoulders; tried to make her go with him, alone, on a business trip to Alaska; and wondered aloud, while shopping for supplies, if other people in the store thought they were lovers.An orchestrated performance
As the 1990s rolled into the next decade, Greenberg's past problems faded away.
He published in peer-reviewed journals and spoke all over the country. He chaired the committee that wrote a national certification exam for his field. His peers elected him president of the American Board of Forensic Psychology.
His hourly rate rose to $450. His fees in individual cases were known to climb from $8,000 to $12,000 to $20,000 or more. He got a 39-foot boat — "More Like It," so named because he'd had a smaller boat, saw a bigger one, thought, that's more like it, and bought one to match. He owned two houses on Capitol Hill — one for home, the other for work. His wine collection was worth $25,000.
On the side he worked at the UW as a clinical associate professor. The UW heard whispers of a troubled past, asked the state, and was told there was nothing to worry about. (The judge's sealing order prohibited disciplinary officials from saying more.)
To testify as an expert, a witness must be found qualified. Greenberg turned this into an orchestrated performance. He would hand a script to the lawyer who hired him.
Question: "Doctor, isn't it true that one of your articles has become one of the landmarks in the field?"
Response: "Well, my article with Dan Shuman on the differences between assessment by therapists and assessment by forensic examiners has been reprinted often, yes."
Greenberg's script had 32 questions in all. His answers had the effect of whispering: I am objective. I am humble. I am a giant in my field.The hidden camera
This is the story Greenberg later told police:
He needed an air purifier. He searched the Internet. A gadget popped up that only appeared to be a purifier. The white plastic box, about 8 inches high, whirred like a purifier, but inside was a hidden camera.
Greenberg placed an order. The item was shipped to him on June 6, 2007.
Greenberg said he planned to spy on contractors remodeling a $1.8 million house he had recently bought for a new home-office. Instead, he installed the camera in his office's bathroom, used by employees and people getting psychological evaluations.
His staff became suspicious. On July 3, a psychologist who worked for Greenberg devised a test. She placed an aerosol can in front of the purifier. If this device was a camera, this would block the view. Within half an hour, Greenberg entered the bathroom, shut the door, and moved the can.
In a scene caught on videotape, he then fiddled with the lens, stared into his camera, smiled and masturbated.
Police arrested Greenberg that afternoon. A detective interviewed him in a small room. Greenberg gazed at the room's video-camera, pointed down at him. In court Greenberg had intimidated. Now his voice was barely audible. He sighed, over and over.
Greenberg told the detective he couldn't resist seeing his employees in partial undress. "I enjoyed it. ... It was fun; it was exciting. ... I didn't do this a lot. I'm not minimizing it. I know it's bad. But I didn't do it a lot."
News of Greenberg's arrest went public. At the UW, a colleague informed the psychology-department chairman that Greenberg gave an annual lecture to students titled "Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychology." "Ironic, I know," she wrote in her email.
Three weeks after his arrest, while awaiting charges, Greenberg committed suicide in a Renton hotel room. He was 59.
He left three notes on his hotel bed. In one — addressed, "To everyone I hurt" — Greenberg wrote: "I am inadequate. I just don't know. I am sorry."
He didn't say who "everyone" was. That would be for the courts to decide.The damage done
When Greenberg died, his personal worth was estimated at $1.7 million. But the claims filed against his estate eclipsed that.
There were claims filed by employees who had been secretly videotaped in Greenberg's bathroom. There were claims filed over cases in which Greenberg failed to finish child-custody evaluations, or did work now deemed tainted or worthless.
Before Greenberg died, some parents in child-custody matters hesitated to criticize his evaluations, fearing any complaint might cost them their children. But since his death, parents have come forward, with women describing bullying tactics, saying he demanded intimate details about their sex lives, and dared them not to answer.
Once the circumstances of Greenberg's downfall became public, courts agreed to take a second look at some of his more recent cases.
In one of them, Greenberg had recommended joint custody in a case where the father had been convicted of beating the mother. Drenched in blood, she had gone to the emergency room and received 15 stitches in her head.
Greenberg branded the mother, a Microsoft employee, as emotionally unstable, saying she complained too much of the abuse she had suffered.
"I was beaten by my husband, and I was beaten up by the system," the woman told The Times. "I was accused of being crazy for not liking being beaten."
After Greenberg's arrest for voyeurism, the woman's lawyer asked to have Greenberg's report tossed out. A King County judge agreed. A new evaluator was appointed — and came to a very different conclusion.
Under the new parenting agreement, the mother is in charge.
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