After less than two days of deliberation following Janice’s insanity trial, she was found guilty of first degree murder, meaning that Janice intentionally killed her eleven month old daughter Kimberly. Thus, the jurors reached the conclusion that Janice was sane, even after two experts, myself and the prosecution’s own expert, opined that she was insane. Two jail psychiatrists who examined her when she was first taken into custody also testified that she was psychotic at that time.
The facts of the case were awful. A 911 dispatcher took a call from a desperate woman. “I just stabbed my daughter.” The incredulous dispatcher, asked, “You did what?” “Please,” Janice squealed. “Help!”
Kimberly was dead before she arrived at the hospital, the result of a penetrating stab wound to the chest. Janice had multiple self-inflicted stab wounds, including deep slashes to her chest. It was a week after the infanticide before she was stable enough to be fully interviewed by the police at the hospital. I listened to several of the interviews. During one, a detective asked Janice a series of questions. “You stabbed her, right?” A moment later, “You knew it was wrong, right?” She was either unresponsive or off topic, mumbling something about her husband Richard. “I begged him,” she said. “What about the knife?” the detective asked. Janice replied, “I didn’t want to hurt my baby. I wanted to save my family…he was torturing us.” When asked if she stabbed Kimberly to get even with Richard, Janice reacted, “God no. He wanted it this way. I begged him.” The detective persisted. “So you were mad at him?” Janice blurted out, “Are you listening. No?” During a later interview, she was more articulate and revealed her paranoia. Referring to her husband, she said “I had scary thoughts…Richard was taking my daughter away…I heard him threaten to put me six feet under… he was gonna hurt me and my baby…”
I examined Janice over the course of a three-week period. By that time, she had been on an antipsychotic medication (Zyprexa) and a mood stabilizer (Depakote). She expressed her thoughts clearly, without apparent distortions in reality. “I need help figuring out what happened.” After developing a rapport and over multiple sessions, we explored the circumstances of Kimberly’s death. Her first recollection was of looking at her baby, wrapped in a blanket and covered with blood, and seeing the color fade from Kimberly’s face. She called 911 and pleaded for help. “I hoped the voice [of the dispatcher] was real.” Although she had no memory of stabbing Kimberly, she remembered that for weeks before the killing, she felt a need to protect Kimberly from Richard. Convinced “there was something in the house….a demon, something supernatural.” She thought Richard “put a hoax on me… He was gonna take my baby.” She recalled thinking her only choice was to kill herself and Kimberly. Her last memory before the stabbing was of looking at a block of knives and a pair of scissors that were on the kitchen counter.
In California, when a defendant claims insanity, they are first tried in the facts of a case and, if convicted, go on to the sanity phase. Janice, of course, was first found guilty. She then moved to the insanity phase of her trial, where the jury had to decide if she was sane at the time of the crime or not guilty by reason of insanity.
During the insanity phase, I testified that, based on my evaluation, which included extensive psychological testing, I diagnosed Janice with a major depression, with psychosis. I also noted that there was no evidence of her faking or exaggerating her symptoms, either in the testing results or from my interviews of family members, all of who corroborated her developing break with reality during the months before the homicide. It was also clear from my interviews with Janice and family members, and the results of psychological testing, that Janice and Richard’s marriage had been sound for years and that, as she descended into psychosis, he was concerned, supportive and reached out to the family for help.
I concluded that, as a result of her psychosis, Janice was not aware of the nature and purpose of her actions. Therefore, at the moment of the stabbing, she did not know it was wrong. I opined that she was insane at the time of Kimberly’s killing. A second expert appointed by the prosecution came to the same conclusion.
Though their marriage had been stable for years, the prosecution had painted the marriage between Janice, and Richard as deeply troubled, and Richard as a drug abuser and Janice as an angry wife. Richard had testified that he was drug-free for years and that Janice was a loving wife and mother, until she became mentally ill, a perspective shared by family members during the trial. None of this evidence helped: The jury found Janice sane at the time of the killing.
Filicide, the killing of a young child by a parent, is not an uncommon calamity. A study supported by the National Institute of Health found that about 15% of homicide arrests over a thirty-two year period were of filicidal nature. Research studies have identified five motivations of adults who murder children. The Altruistic group includes parents who believe they killed their child for real or imagined suffering. The Acutely Psychotic group includes those who killed due to some irrational motive. The Unwanted child group view their child as a hindrance. The Fatal Maltreatment group encompasses parents whose children died as was an unintended consequence of neglect or abuse. Finally, the fifth category, the Spousal Revenge group, is reserved for those parents who kill a child in order to get back at a spouse or partner.
Most commonly, women kill their babies for altruistic and/or psychotic reasons. Jurors frequently view mothers who kill their babies in a sympathetic light, ascribing such behavior to a mental disorder or hormonal factors. In Janice’s case, I suspect that the jury was swayed in a different direction by a number of factors. First, jurors, though compassionate to mothers, are always skeptical of an insanity defense. Surveys show that most view it as a “get out of jail free” card. Second, Janice didn’t have a long history of mental illness, a fact that may have raised suspicions of her acute psychosis, though my psychological testing results and her family unequivocally documenting her delusional symptoms. These factors, together with the prosecutor’s emphasis on the couple’s marital discord and emotional strife may have clinched it for the jury, even with compelling evidence that Janice and Richard had been stable for years before the homicide.
At a news conference after the verdict was reached, the prosecutor told the press that Janice killed Kimberly because “she was angry and selfish…a woman desperate to get back at her husband…”
I wondered if he actually believed that.
More on the insanity defense in a later blog.
2. Friedman, Susan Hatters, R. C. Hall, and Renée M. Sorrentino. “Commentary: women, violence, and insanity.” The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 41, no. 4 (2013): 523-528.
3. Friedman, Susan Hatters, and Phillip J. Resnick. “Child murder by mothers: patterns and prevention.” World Psychiatry 6, no. 3 (2007): 137.
4. Mariano, Timothy Y., Hang Chon Oliver Chan, and Wade C. Myers. “Toward a more holistic understanding of filicide: A multidisciplinary analysis of 32 years of US arrest data.” Forensic science international 236 (2014): 46-53.
5. Oberman, Michelle. “Mothers who kill: Crosscultural patterns in and perspectives on
6. contemporary maternal filicide.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 26 (2003): 493-514.