The question at a Center Moriches man's trial now in progress in Riverhead isn't whether he stabbed his mother to death or whether he has a well-documented history of mental illness — both sides agree those things are true.
The question is whether the mental illness drove him to do what he did.
Dr. Alexander Bardey of Manhattan, the first of two forensic psychiatrists to testify in the trial of Christopher Storm Harrison, 27, told jurors Wednesday that Harrison's bipolar disorder with psychotic aspects led him to believe it was right to kill his mother, Joyce Skarka, in the home they shared. Bardey, who is testifying for the defense, will be followed Thursday by a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution.
Harrison attempted to enter a guilty plea in March, but Suffolk County Court Judge Timothy Mazzei did not ask him at the end of the proceeding how he pleaded, so Harrison never said the word "guilty." When Mazzei later attempted to correct the legal oversight, Harrison reaffirmed his original not guilty plea.
If the jury finds him not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be committed to a secure psychiatric hospital.
During questioning by defense attorney Robert Del Col of Smithtown, Bardey said Harrison had a years-long history of psychotic disorders, marked by repeated failures to stay on his medication that were followed by episodes that required him to be hospitalized. At times, Bardey said Harrison has been mute, heard voices, held paranoid beliefs that people wanted to kill him and suffered from delusions. One such delusion is that he had avatars living inside him, Bardey said.
Harrison went off his antipsychotic medication days before the Nov. 17, 2017 killing, quickly leading to bizarre thoughts, Bardey said.
"He wanted to get a beer and give it to President Trump to control his behavior," Bardey testified.
But soon afterward, Bardey said Harrison was overcome with another delusion — that his mother had enslaved him and the only way to be free was to kill her. This belief apparently was triggered when his mother didn't put some food away in the pantry, as Harrison asked her, Bardey said.
Harrison deliberated for about 40 minutes about what to do, Bardey said, and then got a kitchen knife, slit her throat and stabbed her while she ate sushi at the kitchen table. Then he dragged her body into the bathtub, considered setting it on fire but didn't, Bardey said.
Bardey told Del Col that Harrison acted deliberately and calmly before and after the attack because he was convinced he was acting appropriately.
But during cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Frank Schroeder suggested that Harrison's demeanor was evidence that he was not driven by delusion. Schroeder focused on Harrison's cleanup of the crime scene, which he suggested showed that Harrison knew what he did was wrong, and his initial story to police that he was defending himself against his mother's attack.
"He blamed the person he just murdered, didn't he?" Schroeder asked.
"In essence, he did," Bardey said. He later acknowleded that people with mental illness can know that what they're doing is wrong.
"When he jabbed that knife into his mother's neck, he knew it was going to kill her, right?" Schroeder asked.
"Yes," Bardey said.
Harrison listened quietly all day to the testimony, sometimes rubbing his hands over his scalp or stretching his neck at the defense table.