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Canal murders trial continues with testimony from forensic psychologist

The expert testified that Bryan Patrick Miller fits the criteria for placement on the Autism spectrum and has signs of an dissociative identity disorder.

PHOENIX — Is an accused killer’s childhood trauma to blame for his actions? 

A forensic psychologist testified in the canal murders trial Monday about “sadistic abuse” Bryan Patrick Miller suffered as a child.

However an attorney for the prosecution repeatedly objected, unsuccessfully, to the relevance and reliability of events that allegedly traumatized Miller.

 A Troubled Child and an Abusive Mother

Miller was arrested in 2015 for murdering two young women, Angela Brosso and Melanie Bernas. The women were kidnapped, sexually assaulted and repeatedly stabbed to death in the early 1990s along a canal that runs through Metro Phoenix. One of the bodies was decapitated.

The defense contends Miller is not guilty by reason of insanity. A key witness to their case is Dr. Mark Cunningham, who conducted a trauma inquiry on behalf of the defense. Cunningham testified Miller fits the criteria to place him on the Autism spectrum and said he shows signs of a dissociative identity disorder.

Miller’s autism disorder likely compounded the impact of the psychological abuse his mother inflicted on him, Cunningham said.

12News previously reported that childhood classmates of Miller recall he displayed extremely troubling behavior, was prone to violent outbursts and had difficulty relating to other children.

“Obviously he was a troubled individual and even then I remember teachers trying to do everything they could to keep him under control,” said Brian Mattheson, who attended elementary school with Miller in Glendale.

 Defense: Miller was “terrorized” as a child by his mother

Judge Suzanne Cohen will ultimately decide whether Miller was mentally insane at the time he committed the killings.

According to Cunningham, Miller’s mother deprived him of food, isolated him from friends, beat him and abused his pets.

She allegedly took satisfaction in terrorizing Miller with threats of hurting him or worse.

“His mother told him there were strangers out there who would kidnap him, rape him and kill him,” Cunningham said. “The threat to genitally mutilate a child while holding a knife or scissors is among the most grievous psychological terrorisms that can be directed to a child or any other human being.”

Cunningham testified the abuse Miller experienced warped his ability to relate to others and the world.

“The assaults on his psychological status and his psychosexual status are multi-faceted,” Cunningham said.

RELATED: Woman says Phoenix 'Canal Killer' murdered her sister in 1992, now she's taking action

Prosecution Questions Validity of Miller’s Statements

The prosecution contends Miller’s autism diagnosis is not valid. They also dispute the theory Miller had dissociative amnesia when he committed the gruesome killings. They also question Miller’s ability to recall events that happened between him and his mother.

“The defendant hears things differently than a normal person would,” a prosecuting attorney told the judge. “You could say ‘good morning’ (to him) and he could hear f--- you.”

The attorney said Miller admitted to one doctor his mother never threatened to kill him. The attorney accused the defense of attempting to portray Miller as a victim of PTSD by using unreliable or irrelevant evidence.

“This is what the defense has been doing the whole time, going a little bit off on everything,” the attorney said.

Defense: ‘Zombie Hunter’ Image Was Coping Mechanism

Two men who were close to Miller’s mother said they also feared her, Cunningham said.

The prosecution said those allegations are not relevant to Miller’s claims.

“There has been nothing provided that says the way somebody acts in other aspects of their life has a direct correlation to how she may act with the defendant,” the attorney said.

Cunningham also testified Miller’s habit of dressing up in a costume as the “Zombie Hunter” was more than just a hobby, but a coping mechanism. Miller took on the identity of someone else to avoid personal interactions, Cunningham said.

DNA evidence that led to Miller’s arrest was not disputed.

Miller was also prosecuted for stabbing a woman in Washington state in 2002. He claimed at the time the woman tried to rob him and he was acquitted.  The current trial began in October and resumes on Tuesday. Miller’s ex-wife is scheduled to testify this week.

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