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‘It’s about survival’

Trial: Defense say accused murderer acted on fight-or-flight when he stabbed 2 men

Posted: November 1, 2010 10:32 p.m.
Updated: November 2, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Jurors at the trial of accused killer Michael Dean Stephens got a crash course in the fight-or-flight syndrome, “high fear” and how our bodies respond to life-threatening situations.

Scott Fraser, who teaches neuropsychology at UCLA, cited ordeals experienced by law enforcement officers and by military personnel to explain how human bodies react physically to intense stress in life-threatening situations.

“The fight-or-flight syndrome is the generic type of reaction pattern we experience in conditions of stress from lethal harm,” Fraser told the jury. “Feeling always happens before thinking. ... We’re built with a bias for perceiving danger,” he explained. “Because it’s about survival.

“It’s the old law of the jungle adage — he who is last is lunch. ... Our first reaction is to protect ourselves.”

Fraser’s lesson on how built-in survival response triggers the release of adrenaline in frightened human beings came on the heels of morning testimony given by Stephens describing how he feared for his life in confronting 20-year-old Josh Pipho the night Pipho died.

Stephens, now 21, is charged with murder and attempted premeditated murder.

Prosecutors contend he stabbed Pipho 16 times on Nov. 23, 2007, then ran over Pipho with his car, striking another man Chad Weitz, and then stabbing him about 16 times as well.

Stephens’ defense lawyer Peter J. Korn contends his client acted in self-defense.

Taking the witness stand for the second day in his own defense, Stephens told jurors he had no intention of hurting anyone the night two groups of youths confronted each other in the Diamond Head apartment complex.

With an unhurried manner, sporting a dark blue blazer and gray tie, Stephens explained how he felt threatened after seeing his two friends beaten by members of the rival group.

Deputy District Attorney Mary Sedgwick leveled questions in rapid succession, prompting San Fernando Superior Court Judge Daniel B. Feldstern to stop the exchange at least four times.

“Slow down just a bit,” he told Sedgwick at one point.

On another occasion, he told both she and Stephens to let each other finish what they had to say.

“I told them I didn’t want any problems,” Stephens testified, when asked about confronting his attackers.

“I didn’t want to get jumped by all these people like my friends were,” he said. “I didn’t want to get beat up by all these people.

“Everything was happening so fast.”

Sedgwick asked him repeatedly about holding his knife in front of Pipho.

She also asked him repeatedly why he didn’t just get in his car and drive away.

The core of Monday’s testimony centered on fight-or-flight.

“I was regretting getting out of my car,” Stephens said. “I had seen the skateboard being brought out there so I needed an equalizer.

“I took out my knife.”

Stephens said he held the knife in front of him as Pipho approached him.

“I said ‘Kick back, I don’t want any problems,’” Stephens said.

Sedgwick said, “At that point, you could have gotten back in your car and left.”

Stephens replied, “I felt I was still in danger. They were close to me.

“When I took out my knife, I thought they would leave,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone was going to mess with me.”

The defense is expected to wrap up its case Thursday.


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