Psychological Warfare

Accused child abuser Renee Polreis appeared to smirk at prosecutors who were attempting to waylay her defense strategy at a pretrial hearing last week. It may be the district attorney, however, who has the last laugh.

Polreis--who is charged in the death of her two-year-old adopted son, David--had been poised to offer a unique defense, namely, that the tot, who reportedly suffered from an attachment disorder, essentially beat himself to death ("Terrible Two," October 10, 1996, and "A Deep Attachment," March 13). But a ruling by Weld County District Judge Roger Klein earlier this week will make it more difficult for Polreis's attorneys to introduce psychological theory into the case. The trial is scheduled to start March 31.

David was 28 months old in July 1995, when Renee Polreis and her husband adopted him from a Russian orphanage. Almost from the start, there were problems. Renee told friends that David was prone to horrific temper tantrums, that he would bang his head on the floor and walls, that he would tug on his penis until it bled, and that he'd once bitten her finger nearly to the bone. Approximately four months after the Polreises brought the boy home, Greeley psychologist Byron Norton diagnosed David as suffering from attachment disorder.

Attachment disorder is a theory used to explain a cluster of behaviors, some violent, that are exhibited by children who have difficulty establishing emotional bonds. And according to defense attorney Harvey Steinberg, Renee Polreis's case cannot be understood without an explanation of the disorder. "It's about the ability to buttress and explain to a jury what [David Polreis] was like and what he was capable of doing," Steinberg said in a pre-trial hearing last Friday.

District Attorney Al Dominguez and Deputy DA Todd Taylor sought to have discussons of the theory declared inadmissible. It is, they contend, a novel scientific argument. In fact, if Steinberg does introduce it, this may be the first time the disorder is used in court to explain the death of a child.

Paramedics who were summoned to the Polreises' upscale home in Greeley on February 10, 1996, found the boy unconscious in a bathroom adjacent to the master bedroom. He was bruised over most of his body. He was taken first to a local hospital, then flown to Children's Hospital in Denver, where he was pronounced dead later that same morning.

Renee Polreis never visited her dying boy in the hospital because, she told police, she was "hospital-phobic." She was also busy trying to find an attorney. She needed one. A search of the Polreis home later that day turned up two wooden spoons wrapped in bloody diapers. Renee was arrested the following day.

Her husband, David, a vice president of the ConAgra meat-packing company, quickly posted the $80,000 cash bond to free her. (David Polreis Sr. was out of town when his son was killed.)

Polreis's attorneys initially explored the possibility of having their client plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But they ultimately abandoned that defense and have since played a cat-and-mouse game about what their exact defense strategy will be. All that prosecutors knew was that somehow, attachment-disorder theory played into it. Dominguez tried to get Steinberg to show his hand by asking that Judge Klein rule on whether or not the theory would be admissable at trial.

The March 21 hearing was to determine that issue.
"My client is a good, loving, caring mother," Steinberg told the court at the hearing. "She did everything she possibly could to deal with this situation." And that, he said, is inconsistent with the injuries to the boy and to what he believed was the prosecution's theory--that Renee Polreis beat her son to death while in a rage.

But, Steinberg argued, the boy was not beaten to death--he choked on his own vomit. And, he said, "there is no evidence consistent with the type of force one would expect from someone who is out of control. The evidence in this case will be that there was not a fracture, not a broken bone, no internal bleeding consistent with force...and it would be inconsistent with someone who lost control to cushion their blows so a 3-year-old did not suffer broken bones."

(Attorneys cannot seem to agree on David's age--most likely due to legal positioning. David was two months shy of his third birthday when he died. The prosection labels the boy as 2. The defense unfailingly refers to him as 3 years old.)

Dominguez, in what Steinberg would later describe as "an impassioned plea," told the judge that the boy could not possibly have caused the injuries to himself, injuries that included bruising that reached, in some places, all the way to the bone. Nor, Dominguez declared, could attachment disorder explain away the fact that before phoning paramedics to help her son, Renee Polreis called her therapists and told them she'd hurt the boy.

The two attorneys also played "push me, pull you" with the sole witness of the day, psychologist Frank Kunstal, who was called by the prosecution.

Under questioning by Dominguez, Kunstal said he'd never heard of a child under the age of three taking his own life. Nor, he said, did the mere fact of suffering from attachment disorder automatically mean that the child engaged in self-abusive behavior. And, he said, attachment disorder is extremely rare in the general population.

Under questioning by Steinberg, however, Kunstal conceded that children with attachment disorder sometimes have a high pain threshhold, that they might injure themselves, and that the disorder is common among a population of troubled children.

After mulling over the testimony, Klein made his ruling on Monday, declaring that the defense could introduce the disorder, but only by following strict guidelines. Before admitting evidence on the theory, Klein wrote in his order, it must be established that "based upon a reasonable degree of medical probability," David's injuries were self-inflicted.

In other words, before it would be allowed to bring up its theory about attachment disorder, the defense would have to marshal enough evidence to show that the boy could have killed himself. To allow the introduction of the disorder without showing that the boy could have caused his own death as a result of his psychological problems, Klein wrote, "would result in a trial on the character of the young child who is the alleged victim, rather than on whether or not the defendant is guilty of the crime. Such evidence would be misleading and confusing and could prejudice the jury..."

The judge also told Steinberg to give the prosecution copies of David's psychological records, which the defense had fought against submitting.