Cult expert speaks at Roberson murder trial

Tahoe Daily Tribune, Nevada/November 10, 2009

Despite objections by defense attorney Monica Lynch, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury allowed a cult expert to testify in the Ulysses Roberson murder trial this week.

Roberson is accused of first-degree murder in the disappearance of Alexander Olive - his 4-year-old son - from a Tahoe Keys home in December 1985 or January 1986. The exact date Olive, who was known to the Roberson clan as "Salaam," disappeared isn't known.

Tuesday afternoon, California State University, Chico sociology professor Janja Lalich testified about often misunderstood mindsets of people involved in groups with an undying devotion to a charismatic leader.

During a hearing Tuesday morning to determine if Lalich would be allowed to testify, prosecutor Patricia Kelliher said the sociologist's testimony would help the jury understand why the women - who have testified about their previous involvement with Roberson in a cult-like communal living situation - did not immediately tell police about Roberson's alleged abuse or the disappearance of Olive.

Cult-like behavior

Members of cults and cult-like groups - which Lalich described as "self-sealing systems" on Tuesday - are often afraid to speak out against the group's beliefs and make decisions they know will keep them in good standing with a group's leader, Lalich said.

"Yes, they have choices, but they know exactly how they're supposed to choose to remain in the system," Lalich said.

Prior to the start of the trial, Lynch successfully motioned to have the term "cult" excluded from the proceedings and Lalich was required to not use the term during her testimony.

Lynch argued that Lalich's testimony about the mindsets relating to some of the witnesses in the case was irrelevant to the primary matter at hand.

"It's not pertinent to this case as to whether or not Mr. Roberson killed Salaam," Lynch said.

Kingsbury said she was initially inclined to prohibit Lalich's testimony based on the briefs that have been submitted on the matter and the argument heard in court.

But two legal precedents, including a case where the California Supreme Court allowed a police officer to testify about why a parent may not report the molestation of their child, swayed Kingsbury towards allowing Lalich's testimony.

Pathologist not called

At the trial on Monday, Kelliher did not call a pathologist to the witness stand after Kingsbury limited the scope of the testimony the medical expert would be allowed to give.

Stephany Fiore would not be able to testify regarding how long it could take for a child to drown, Kingsbury ruled. The judge said she would allow Fiore to testify regarding what internal organs in a child could be damaged by a punch to the stomach.

"The rest would be speculative," Kingsbury said.

Kelliher contends Roberson killed Olive in an upstairs bathtub after repeatedly punching the child in the stomach and beating Olive with child with a piece of kindling wood in the garage of the South Lake Tahoe home where the Roberson clan was living at the time of Olive's disappearance.

Kingsbury made the decisions regarding Lalich's and Fiore's testimony outside the presence of the jury.

Also outside of the presence of the jury on Monday, Lynch signaled she would file a motion to dismiss the case against Roberson following the close of prosecution arguments based on insufficient evidence.

Kelliher could wrap up the state's case against Roberson as soon as Thursday, when testimony in the trial resumes.

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