Canal Killer trial: Defendant used costume to feel 'less invisible,' expert testifies

Lane Sainty
Arizona Republic
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The man accused of killing two young women along Phoenix canals in the early 1990s dressed up as a character he called the "Zombie Hunter" to compensate for his social awkwardness, an expert witness testified in court.

Before he was arrested and charged with murder in 2015, Bryan Miller would drive around in what appeared to be a heavily modified police car and interact with strangers while role-playing as the character, the expert said Wednesday.

Miller wrote on Facebook in 2014 that constructing the "completely insane" vehicle made him "a little less invisible to the world."

His "Zombie Hunter" persona was raised in court as forensic psychologist Dr. Mark Cunningham testified Miller has autism spectrum disorder. The diagnosis, which the state contests, is central to Miller's insanity defense.

Miller is charged with murdering and attempting to sexually assault Angela Brosso, who was found beheaded near a bike trail in November 1992, and Melanie Bernas, found dead in the Arizona Canal in September 1993. The case became known as the "canal killings."

Both women died from a stab wound to the back and are believed to have been cycling along Phoenix canals when they were killed. The two murders were connected by DNA evidence, but detectives could not pinpoint a suspect and the investigation went cold for two decades.

Miller, 50, was arrested in January 2015 after a DNA breakthrough in the case. His bench trial in the Maricopa County Superior Court has run in fits and starts since October, stretched out by scheduled breaks and logistical issues. The state is seeking the death penalty.

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Miller had shown symptoms of autism

Bryan Miller listens during his trial on Jan. 16, 2023, in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Ariz.

Miller's attorneys contend he had a dissociative disorder and autism spectrum disorder at the time of the murders, and that he did not understand the nature of his actions.

Cunningham, a crucial defense expert, testified Tuesday and Wednesday that Miller had exhibited a number of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder throughout his life.

Among them were repetitive movements, poor coordination, odd and peculiar demeanor and social dysfluency, which Cunningham described broadly as an inability to pick up social cues. People who experience this, he said, "just fundamentally don't get the social dance that the rest of us are engaged in."

Miller's reliance on his "Zombie Hunter" costume to feel socially connected was among dozens of examples of autism symptoms offered by Cunningham, drawn from interviews with Miller and the people around him.

Cunningham said Miller's ease in costume stood in stark contrast to his everyday social abilities.

“The contrast between the struggle and the awkwardness that he has when it’s just Bryan, as opposed to his seeking out and enjoying and interacting with people in the costume, speaks to the paucity of his capabilities," he said.

"That only when he’s defended by a mask, only when he’s in kind of a false role, is he able to then get past his anxiety and his reticence.

Others cited examples of behavior

Cunningham cited numerous examples of Miller's relatives, friends and acquaintances describing him as awkward, quiet, and shy.

A former Little League coach observed Miller not socializing with other boys and appearing to not know what to say when the boys spoke to him. A speech and language pathologist who worked with Miller as a teenager said Miller preferred to hang out with students who were intellectually disabled, though he himself was not.

Miller told Cunningham that during a past relationship, he felt competitive and upset when his girlfriend wanted to spend time with his daughter. He was unable to recognize her interest as a positive thing, Cunningham said, and would withdraw and cry, his feelings hurt.

Cunningham said a neighbor who observed Miller as a child in Hawaii said he would blink repeatedly as if "trying to put his thoughts into gear" and would twirl alone in the schoolyard, not playing with other kids.

One of his Little League teammates also observed the twirling on the baseball field, describing Miller "twirling like a ballerina" in right field.

Cunningham also testified that Miller had obsessive interests, including bicycles, cars, and movies and DVDs, and was particularly attuned to certain sensory experiences, including that he enjoyed walking barefoot and wearing shoes with individual toes.

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'Who was Ellen?'

The trial has focused heavily on Miller's relationship with his deceased mother, Ellen, and has included significant evidence of her physical and emotional abuse.

Cunningham said answering the question "Who was Ellen?" was "fundamental" to understanding Miller's development.

"So who Ellen is as a parent in her attitudes, psychology, sexuality, that’s fundamental to me as a forensic psychologist," he said.

"Who she was also informs the quality of parenting that (Miller) received in the face of his autism spectrum disorder."

Cunningham's testimony continues this week.

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