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Disputed brain science becomes key part of accused police killer's insanity defense

Humberto Delgado’s trial is scheduled to start Oct. 31. He is accused of killing Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts in 2009.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Humberto Delgado’s trial is scheduled to start Oct. 31. He is accused of killing Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts in 2009.

TAMPA — Humberto Delgado's defenders are relying on a controversial brain science that they compare to aiming the Hubble Telescope at neurons. They're counting on it to help prove Delgado's insanity when he goes to trial for the alleged murder of Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts in 2009.

A public defender tried all day Friday to convince a judge to allow the technology when Delgado's trial begins on Oct. 31. Psychologists for the defense testified that injuries dating back to childhood have short-circuited Delgado's brain.

But the prosecution fought back with psychiatric testimony that the technology has no diagnostic validity in cases like Delgado's and is disavowed by many doctors.

The technology, quantitative electroencephalography, or QEEG, takes a standard EEG test of electrical activity in the brain and runs it through a computer that compares it hundreds of "normal" EEGs. Its advocates say it can detect damage to many areas of the brain and help diagnose mental disorders.

It was developed in large part by St. Petersburg psychologist Robert Thatcher and was administered to Delgado by a QEEG proponent, Tampa psychologist Dr. William Lambos.

Both testified Friday that when electrodes were attached to Deldado's scalp at the Hillsborough County Jail, the QEEG found damage to critical areas of his brain. The damaged areas included the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes — parts of the brain that enable humans to reason and react rationally.

The defense says he may have suffered those injuries from a fall from a horse as a child, or from an auto accident as an adult. Both Thatcher and Lambos said the tests validated their diagnosis of insanity.

But psychiatrist Barbara Stein, testifying for the prosecution, said a majority of neurologists and psychiatrists don't accept QEEG as a diagnostic tool for traumatic brain injuries. She said QEEG tests have rarely been allowed as evidence in court.

"Mainstream neurologists, psychiatrists and forensic practitioners don't use it as a reliable tool in everyday practice."

In her own examination of Delgado, Stein said he scored perfectly — "18 out of 18" — on a test of his frontal lobes.

The QEEG is only one element of Delgado's insanity defense. He has a long history of diagnosed mental illnesses. He suffers from a bipolar disorder with psychotic features. He has been involuntarily committed twice. In court, where he sat silently for eight hours, his head shook from a constant tremor.

But Stein said those illnesses are probably genetically rooted, and she saw no proven link to his past injuries: "There's no evidence of a traumatic brain injury."

Circuit Judge Emmett Battles did not rule on the admissibility of the QEEG test Friday. Further arguments will continue on Monday.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Disputed brain science becomes key part of accused police killer's insanity defense 10/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 10:19pm]
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