James McAvoy stars in Split (2017). John Baer/ © 2016 Universal Studios.
James McAvoy stars in Split (2017). John Baer/ © 2016 Universal Studios.

5 Criminals Who Claimed to Have Multiple Personalities

James McAvoy stars in Split (2017). John Baer/ © 2016 Universal Studios.
James McAvoy stars in Split (2017). John Baer/ © 2016 Universal Studios.

Accused criminals have used some wild excuses to explain away their crimes. Ethan Couch said he suffered from “affluenza.” Dan White blamed junk food (well, not exactly). But perhaps the most controversial defense to this day is dissociative identity disorder (DID)—previously known as multiple personality disorder.

There’s an enormous amount of suspicion surrounding dissociative identity disorder. Psychiatrists believe that people who suffer from this condition splinter their personality to deal with a trauma, often childhood abuse. By this definition, someone with DID could conceivably commit a horrific crime and not even know it—because one of their “multiples” or “alters” did it instead.

Skeptics believe criminals lie about having this disorder to avoid consequences, and it probably doesn’t help that characters in pulpy movies like Fight Club, Identity, and M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Split all have it. Still, some courts have accepted this plea, as three of these real-life cases show. But the other two prove that DID remains a highly contentious legal defense.


Most people trace the multiple personality defense back to Billy Milligan. Milligan was hauled into court in 1978 on several counts of rape, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping. His case soon garnered national attention when his lawyers pursued a plea of insanity, arguing that two different personalities had committed the crimes—not Milligan. This defense was highly unusual for the time, but it worked. Milligan was found not guilty, and the judge committed him to a psychiatric hospital. He escaped for four months in 1986, was released in 1991, and died from cancer in 2014.

Psychiatrists have suggested that Milligan had as many as 24 personalities, including a Yugoslavian munitions expert and a 3-year-old girl. Milligan’s life was also the subject of a nonfiction book, The Minds of Billy Milligan, which has long been in movie development. And if Leonardo DiCaprio has his way, he’ll be starring as Milligan.


Juanita Maxwell’s legal problems began in 1979, when she was charged with beating a 73-year-old woman to death. The murder occurred at the hotel where Maxwell worked as a maid and where the woman in question, Inez Kelly, lived. But Maxwell insisted that she hadn’t killed Kelly; her brasher personality, Wanda Weston, had. Whereas Maxwell came off as quiet and prim, Weston was chatty and bragged about smoking weed. She had no problem admitting on the witness stand that she had bludgeoned Kelly with a lamp, because the woman refused to return a pen. Maxwell’s transformation on the stand spooked onlookers, and the court found her not guilty by reason of insanity.

Maxwell was committed to a mental ward, with the full support of her husband, Sammy. Yet in 1988, soon after she was released, she landed in jail for robbing two banks in St. Petersburg, Florida. By that point, she had seven personalities, but Wanda was still pinned as the culprit of the crimes.


When Billy Joe Harris was arrested in 2011, police called him “one of the most wanted men in Texas.” Others knew him as the “Twilight Rapist,” for his early morning assaults on elderly and disabled women. His DNA linked him to multiple attacks and burglaries spanning two years and several counties. Harris insisted he was not a serial rapist, though; rather, it was one of his alters.

According to Psychology Today, Dr. Colin Ross testified in court that he believed Harris had dissociative identity disorder, with reservations. He said he questioned Harris’s insanely high scores on the screening tests for DID—which were administered by the defense attorney, not Ross—and had caught Harris in lies about his personal life. Clearly, everyone else in the courtroom had suspicions, too. Some jurors suppressed laughter when Harris became “Bobby,” another one of his alleged personalities, on the stand. Worse still, he was recorded in a phone call to his girlfriend bragging about putting on a “good show” in court.

The judge tossed out Ross’s testimony and the jury convicted Harris. He received a life sentence, which he has tried to appeal—so far with no success.


The case against Dwayne Wilson began on September 20, 2005, when his nephew, Paris, called the police. The boy explained that his uncle had stabbed him, his brother, his sister, and his mother in their New Jersey home. Paris was the only survivor.

When Wilson’s hearings commenced four years later, his lawyer argued that one of the defendant’s three personalities, “Kiko,” had actually committed the murders and that Wilson could not be held responsible for the crimes. But the judge rejected this argument and sentenced Wilson to 40 years in prison.


Thomas Huskey was known as “Zoo Man” among prostitutes in Tennessee, because he used to work in the elephant barn at Knoxville Zoo. But this whimsical nickname turned sinister when Huskey was charged with a string of murders. He confessed to killing four women, and was accused of raping and robbing two more. Police also recovered jewelry they believed Huskey had taken off his victims’ bodies as “souvenirs.” Huskey’s attorneys, however, insisted that their client had not confessed, kept trophies, or done anything wrong. The perpetrator was “Kyle,” his alternate personality.

The first jury to hear this case could not reach a consensus on the murder, and the prosecution eventually gave up those charges. But Huskey was convicted of the rapes he committed before the murders, and sentenced to 64 years in prison. The Knoxville News Sentinel called his case one of the most expensive in state history.

What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Two Human Toes Were Stolen From an Anatomy Exhibit
Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A 28-year-old New Zealand man walked into an anatomy exhibition with 10 toes and walked out with 12. We don't know why or how he did it, but the man stole two human toes from a Body Worlds display in Auckland last month, The New Zealand Herald reports.

The unnamed man appeared in court Monday and pleaded guilty to improperly interfering with the corpse "of an unknown person" and purloining two toes, which alone are valued at about $3800. The motivation for the human remains heist wasn't stated. (Fulfilling a dare seems a likely explanation, or maybe he's just a fan of The Big Lebowski.)

Whatever the reason may be, the story has a happy ending, at least: The digits have since been returned to their rightful place in the "Vital" exhibit, which explores the human body in motion. "Vital," which will remain open in Auckland until July 13, is one of several traveling exhibitions curated by Body Worlds. Two other Body Worlds exhibits are currently on view in the U.S., including "RX" (showcasing the effects of disease) in Toledo, Ohio, and "Animal Inside Out" (an "anatomical safari") in Richmond, Virginia.

The bodies, all of which are donated for exhibition purposes, are preserved via plastination, a process that "replaces bodily fluids and soluble fat in specimens with fluid plastics that harden after vacuum-forced impregnation," according to the Body Worlds website. More than 16,000 people around the world have signed up to donate their bodies after their deaths.

[h/t The New Zealand Herald]


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