SALEM — A forensic psychologist hired by prosecutors to evaluate Peter Ronchi told jurors yesterday that the Marblehead man, charged with stabbing his pregnant girlfriend to death, showed no signs of a mental illness or defect.
Dr. Tali Walters’ conclusions were the opposite of those offered by a defense-hired expert last week in Ronchi’s trial on two counts of first-degree murder for the May 2009 deaths of Yulyia Galperina, 42, and their unborn son, whom Galperina had named David.
The defense contends that Ronchi, now 48, “lost it” after Galperina told him that the child, due to be born within the following week, was not his. They’re hoping to convince a jury that Ronchi is guilty of a lesser offense, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.
But prosecutors say Ronchi acted both with premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.
Walters was called by the prosecution to refute the testimony of the defense expert, Dr. Thomas Deters, who told jurors that Ronchi has symptoms of eight mental disorders or impairments, including Asperger’s syndrome, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, hypochondria, a schizoid disorder that caused him to withdraw from contact with others, and indications of brain trauma, including a cyst on the frontal lobe of his brain.
Walters, in about 41/2 hours of interviewing Ronchi, testified yesterday that she did not see any of those when she interviewed him in August.
Instead, she told the Salem Superior Court jury, Ronchi showed indications that he was fully capable of controlling his anger that night, pointing to the escalating argument and his decision to leave, when he announced that he would send money for the baby.
“It didn’t occur in an instantaneous moment,” Walters testified under questioning by prosecutor Jean Curran. “There was an increase in emotional tension and intensity over a period of time and an increase in the seriousness of the words that were said.”
Walters said she inferred that Ronchi was not holding the knife during the argument, indicating that at some point, he made a conscious decision to take the knife from his jacket, pull it out of its sheath and use it.
“During that time, there could have been a decision to stop, but it was not made,” Walters testified.
Galperina was stabbed a total of 14 times, including three wounds to her chest and another 11 on her back.
Walters also said that Ronchi’s statements to investigators the following night, after he turned himself in to police in Norwalk, Conn., about covering Galperina so that her children wouldn’t see her showed his state of mind at the time. His decision to keep driving, rather than follow through with what he testified was a suicide plan on the Tobin Bridge, also showed that he could make decisions shortly after the killing, she testified.
During cross-examination, which will continue this morning, defense lawyer John Swomley questioned the thoroughness of Walters’ evaluation, suggesting that she made little or no effort to interview anyone besides Ronchi himself, and that her view of the defendant was colored by her having worked for the state for many years before entering private practice. (Walters was a forensic psychologist who conducted evaluations of patients at several state mental health facilities before establishing her own practice).
Swomley suggested that Walters had no basis for her conclusion that Ronchi had no history of mental illness, as he waved a copy of medical records of Ronchi’s admission to Beverly Hospital for what was believed to be a panic attack, records she did not review.
The prosecution’s opportunity to evaluate Ronchi had been delayed prior to trial by the defense team’s objection to the original expert the prosecution planned to use, because one of Ronchi’s attorneys was, at the time, potentially going to work with the same doctor in another case.
Closing arguments in the case are expected sometime this morning, after Swomley concludes his cross-examination of Walters.
Earlier in the day, jurors were allowed to listen to an edited recording of Ronchi’s statement to police while he was in custody in Connecticut.
The interview, less than 24 hours after the killing, includes assertions by Ronchi that, “I think I had a moment of craziness” and “I think I lost my mind.”
“She told me, right, she told me, for 10 months,” he said, his voice trailing off. “She said it wasn’t my baby.”
Prosecutors had sought to bar the use of the audio-recorded interrogation, but the defense convinced Judge David Lowy that the statements were admissible in order to show that Ronchi has been consistent in his account of the evening, including his lack of memory concerning the actual stabbing.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.