[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, PENN., N.C.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Nov 24 12:41:50 CST 2004
Child killings rare, postpartum depression isn't Illness hard to fight,
even harder to fathom
The birth of a baby is supposed to be one of life's most joyous events, a
culmination of hope and love and wonder.
So how can it be a trigger for depression - or even unthinkable tragedy?
"If you haven't lived through it or watched someone who has, it is so hard
to fathom," said Ann Dunnewold, a Dallas psychologist. "Becoming a mother
is supposed to be the most wonderful time in your life, but it's really
one of the most difficult transitions."
The killing of a 10-month-old Plano girl on Monday, apparently by a mother
suffering postpartum depression, was the 3rd high-profile tragedy of its
kind in Texas in four years. Last year a mother in East Texas killed her
three children by bashing them with stones. In 2001 Andrea Yates of
Houston drowned her five children in a bathtub.
Such extremes are rare. Postpartum psychosis affects one-tenth of one
percent of new mothers, according to the National Mental Health
Association. And the incidents are not new - although media attention may
make it seem more common, such killings go back to ancient times.
The following groups offer information about postpartum depression and
Postpartum Resource Center of Texas maintains an extensive database of
resources for moms adjusting to parenthood or coping with emotional
issues. Call 1-877-472-1002 or visit www.texaspostpartum.org.
Mental Health Association of Greater Houston offers a downloadable
brouchure on "Your Emotions After Delivery" at http://www.mhahouston.org/
pdf/EPamphlet.pdf, or by calling 713-522-5161
National Mental Health Association provides a fact sheet on postpartum
disorders at http://www.nmha.org/infoctr/ factsheets/postpartum.cfm.
American Academy of Family Physicians offers information at
But although recent horrific incidents have heightened awareness of the
syndrome, stigma of postpartum depression still makes it difficult for new
mothers and family members to battle, said Dr. Dunnewold, who is a past
president of Postpartum Support International and has written three books
on the subject.
"After you have a baby you have to take care of yourself," she said.
"Babies' needs of course have to come first, but mom is often only 4th or
5th on the list.
"What we want to think of as a wonderful time is actually grueling labor.
We don't always validate that women have problems, and they're not always
willing to discuss it."
Postpartum depression has multiple levels.
Hormonal changes, stress and lack of sleep are problems for many new
mothers. "The baby blues" affect up to 80 % of them, according to the
mental health association.
Betsy Schwartz, executive director of the Mental Health Association of
Greater Houston, said "baby blues" typically last about 2 weeks.
Beyond two weeks, she said, "If a mother has difficulty sleeping even when
the baby sleeps, or has a lack of interest, or is not finding pleasure in
anything about the newborn, or has low energy, or a change in appetite and
decreasing ability to take care of the baby - or thoughts of suicide - any
of those symptoms can be a sign of post-partum depression."
The condition affects 10 percent to 20 % of new mothers and can last up to
a year, the National Mental Health Association said.
The rarest and worst cases involve postpartum psychosis. In some cases,
having children can exacerbate existing mental problems.
Dr. Geoffrey McKee, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor in the
Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of South Carolina School
of Medicine, said psychotic conditions carry with them a strong biological
component. For example, Ms. Yates suffered from schizophrenia even before
"Often, when you have a psychotic condition, there's a family history," he
said. "An uncle, a grandmother will have shared the same condition."
Religion appears to play an aspect in many such cases, he said, not
because it causes such psychoses but, rather, allows psychotic individuals
to make sense of the bizarre worlds they inhabit.
"One aspect of psychotic delusions is that they often involve religious
themes," he said. "And there's a lot of reasons for that. But you can't
blame such conditions on Baptists any more than you can on Catholics, or
any other religion. When people are struggling with psychosis, they're
trying to make sense of their unique world and the often strange
perceptions they're courting. It's not uncommon for such people to have
religious delusions as a way of trying to sort out and understand these
terrible impulses they have," he said.
"It's unbelievable to me to even think of cutting off my child's arm, but
I can see where such a person would tend to blame such an act on some
other force ... maybe a satanic force. In other words, perhaps they say to
themselves, 'I need to protect my child from this satanic force, so I'll
cut off her arm to send her back to God.'"
Dr. McKee's 20-year study of mothers who kill their children led him to
write Why Mothers Kill: A Risk Assessment Casebook, which will be
published next year by Oxford University Press.
Common threads often exist among such women - lack of familial or
community support, distant husbands, preoccupation with religiosity - but
no one factor can ever be blamed, said Dr. McKee, since the perpetrators
keep their psychoses as deeply hidden as possible.
Thus, many of the more severe symptoms often go unrecognized, he said,
"because psychotic people don't want anyone else to know they're having
these feelings or experiences. They harbor a fear of being stigmatized
because others will think they're crazy. So they may appear normal on the
surface. It's a battle we continually fight, this stigma of mental
illness. Such people don't want us to know that they're struggling so
much. So it's hard for us to see, unless it's really bizarre. And by then,
it's often too late."
Dr. McKee said postpartum depression - and deadly results - can be traced
to ancient times. He said he does not think the syndrome is becoming more
common, but horrifying incidents receive more notoriety.
"Thirty years ago, news of a mother killing her child in rural France may
have made it to Paris," said Dr. McKee. "Now it makes it to Paris and New
York and is heard around the world."
Awareness and understanding are the keys to solving the problem, experts
Dawn Halliman, executive director of Dallas Area Parent Education, said
that when she began teaching childbirth classes 25 years ago, "We had to
convince people there was something called postpartum depression.
"It's not something that people make up," she said. "It's a medical
condition that lots of times just blindsides families."
Ms. Schwartz said that new mothers are often told that having a baby
should be the happiest time in their lives. But what they need to realize,
she said, is that it's not unusual to feel precisely the opposite emotion.
"Mothers often feel shame and guilt for not feeling happy when they have a
new baby," she said.
She urges new mothers "to pay attention to how they're feeling and to be
able to ask for help from a mental health professional not to try to deny
And, Dr. Dunnewold said, doctors and family members need to take mothers'
"People tend to minimize it or think women just need to get a good night's
rest and have dinner out with your husband and everything will be fine,"
she said. "Sometimes that's not enough.
"I think we've made great progress," Dr. Dunnewold said. "But we need more
screening, a bigger network of support and an overall shift validating
that parenthood is a very difficult thing."
Ms. Halliman agrees, saying there should be a "continuum of care for moms"
ranging from high school classes to prenatal care to pediatrician visits
to day care centers.
"If you're pregnant, you get bombarded with 'Don't smoke, don't drink, use
a car seat,'" she said. "This is another risk we have to emphasize. Look
out for the warning signs of postpartum depression, and if it happens get
Just as friends, families and caregivers focus on babies and fret about
their well-being, Ms. Hallman said, we should do the same for their moms.
"We need to be connected and look out for people," she said. "And we need
to keep saying, 'Postpartum depression is real.' Don't be scared. Just
like high blood pressure, you deal with it and you get it fixed."
It's too easy to judge, too hard to understand
Doctors and lawyers no doubt will come up with a clinical term for what
went wrong with Dena Schlosser. I really cannot come up with adequate
words, though, for what she did.
Reporters and talk-show hosts have been trying, describing Mrs.
Schlosser's butchery of her 11-month-old baby as "disturbing" and, believe
it or not, "unfortunate." They're trying, but this awful story really just
leaves you speechless.
Plenty of people are already lining up to offer their opinions as to Mrs.
Schlosser's culpability. The I'm-fed-up-with-killer-moms lobby already has
her guilty of capital murder. Sympathetic advocates for victims of
postpartum depression say she can't be held accountable.
They bring the heat of emotion to the debate. In truth, though, I think
it's an academic question that wasn't fully resolved with the cases of
Andrea Yates, Lisa Ann Diaz or Dee Laney - and won't be in this case,
either. There is no "satisfactory" penalty for psychotics crazy enough to
murder their own children for no comprehensible reason.
Part of the reason the debate is so fierce is the yawning gap in the law
between "guilty" and "not guilty by reason of insanity." Defendants like
Mrs. Schlosser seem too crazy to be convicted of capital murder, but their
crimes are so horrible that a stretch in a mental hospital seems
Perhaps it is time for a reasoned legislative examination of the issue,
which was proposed earlier this year by Texas Attorney General Greg
Abbott. Mr. Abbot called for reform of the state's insanity law, which
requires only that defendants acquitted because they are insane spend an
undetermined term of treatment in a state mental hospital.
"The public is justifiably suspect about a system that allows an insane
killer to go free," Mr. Abbott said. "What we need is a system that allows
the state to continue to supervise dangerous, mentally ill criminals."
Such a system might, at least, help bridge the vast divide between those
who look at Dena Schlosser and see a victim of illness and those who see a
dangerous killer. In truth, she is probably both.
In the meantime, though, the many people, including me, who keep wondering
how a person could perform such a cruel mutilation on a little baby are
wasting their mental energy.
Whole, healthy people are not going to be able to grasp what was in Mrs.
Schosser's head, and they wouldn't want to. The compulsion she felt,
whatever its source, is an incomprehensible horror.
The people for whom I feel great sympathy in this case are the ones who
knew this family, who are in any way parties to this tragedy.
Baby Margaret Elizabeth is beyond human help now, but her older sisters
are going to carry the terrible consciousness of what happened to her
throughout their lives. They're going to need a lot of support.
My heart goes out, too, to the paramedics and police officers and doctors
and nurses who found and tried to treat the baby, who were witnesses to
And I'm frankly in awe of the Plano emergency dispatcher, identified on
the 911 tape only as "Steve," who maintained a calm professionalism as
Mrs. Schlosser told him in a vacant, almost uninterested tone that she had
cut her baby's arms off.
These people are trained to cope with tragedy, but they all could probably
use a kind thought right now.
I'm not about to try to pass judgment on what Dena Schlosser "deserves." I
don't know if you can really draw moral conclusions in this case; I
suppose I would just ask the state the do its utmost to ensure that she is
never in a position to harm anybody else.
It hurts just to think about this terrible case, much less to understand
Instead, let it be an occasion to give your own kids an extra hug, an
extra measure of love and protection. That's something we can all
(source for both: Dallas Morning News)
Postpartum psychosis difficult to prove in court
When mothers kill their kids, mental illness is often blamed.
This year, 2 Texas women with psychosis -- Lisa Diaz, the Plano mother who
drowned her 2 daughters, and Deanna Laney, the Tyler homemaker who bashed
her sons' skulls with rocks -- were found not guilty by reason of
But an insanity defense based on postpartum psychosis is extremely hard to
prove, legal experts say.
"To find someone legally insane, 12 jurors have to unanimously agree that
the person was not in touch with reality," said Greg Westfall, a criminal
defense attorney in Fort Worth.
Postpartum depression is common, with 50 % to 80 % of women experiencing
mild symptoms of sadness 2 weeks after childbirth.
But postpartum psychosis, whose symptoms can include hearing voices or
becoming excessively agitated, is rare and serious.
In the case of Dena Schlosser, 35, who is charged with capital murder in
the death of her 10-month-old daughter, psychiatrists will have to
evaluate her to determine whether she knew what she was doing, said Tom
Mills, a defense lawyer with offices in Dallas and Austin.
"What was the meaning of her cutting the arms off?" Miller said.
"Certainly, it was an unusual thing to do and seems like it would lend
itself to in-depth testing."
Why she severed the baby's arms is pure speculation at this point, said
Dr. Ernest Brownlee, medical director at Millwood Hospital in Arlington.
"She could be reacting to the child reaching for her," he said.
In some cases, women who kill their children are acting on a delusional
belief that makes sense to them, even though it's highly abnormal to
anyone else, said Dr. Sherwood Brown, assistant professor of psychiatry at
the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
"Sometimes people will barricade themselves in a house, seal up the
windows and shoot it out," he said. "That seems absolutely ridiculous to a
normal person, but if you're acting on a delusional belief that there's
some sort of conspiracy to harm your family, then the behavior seems less
Postpartum psychosis might be difficult to prove in the courtroom, but it
can be a different story in psychiatric hospitals, said Guenevere Nieman,
a psychotherapist at Millwood.
"We see how it affects individuals, and these women are not
psychologically sound," she said.
Some women think their child is sick and would be better off dead, or they
don't bond with the baby, Nieman said.
"They think they will be doing their child a favor by putting them out of
their misery," she said.
Among those with psychosis, there's very slight risk of committing
infanticide, Brown said.
Although no one fully understands the cause of postpartum psychosis,
hormonal changes after childbirth are believed to play a part, he said.
But it's hardly the only reason.
Many women who are on antidepressants stop taking them during pregnancy,
but they are still depressed, Nieman said. After childbirth, their
symptoms can be exacerbated.
"That's why we stress that women on psychotropic medications go to their
psychiatrist," she said. "As their body changes, so can their
There is a higher incidence of postpartum psychosis in people who have
another major disorder, Brownlee said.
For those women, the stress of parenthood can tip the scales.
"Having a child is stressful for everybody," Brown said. "In addition to
biological and hormonal changes, you've got a baby crying all hours of the
night and you're not sleeping; there are so many factors."
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Mom who cut off baby's arms quoted Bible
Her method was unique, but the case of a mother who admitted killing her
baby daughter by severing the child's arms bears striking resemblance to
the high-profile cases of other Texas women who suffered mental illness
before killing their children.
Dena Schlosser, 35, was charged with capital murder Monday after calmly
telling a 911 operator that she had cut off the arms of 11-month old
Margaret. Police found Schlosser sitting in her living room, covered in
blood, a church hymn playing in the background.
Schlosser's husband, John, told an official with Texas' Family and
Protective Services that his wife had referenced a Bible scripture the
night before the killing and told him she wanted to "give her children to
God," according to an FPS affidavit that led a judge to award the agency
temporary custody of the couple's two older children.
Jennifer Leung wrote in the affidavit that John Schlosser did not appear
alarmed by his wife's comment or see it as a sign that she would harm her
"The FPS was greatly concerned about Mr. Schlosser's comments and because
he had not taken measures to protect the infant," Leung wrote.
John Schlosser said he can't make sense of what has happened and wants his
daughters back, Dallas-Fort Worth television station KTVT reported Tuesday
Legal and psychiatric experts say the high-profile cases are no more
common in Texas than in other states, but the brutal methods have garnered
Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the family's Houston bathtub in
2001, and East Texas mother Deanna Laney last year bashed her three sons'
skulls with rocks, killing the two eldest and maiming the toddler.
Another woman from the suburban Dallas town of Plano, where Schlosser
lives, suffered psychotic delusions before drowning her daughters last
fall. And a woman in Brownsville is accused of helping her common-law
husband behead her three children.
"Texas seems to be a lightning rod," said George Parnham, the Houston
attorney who defended Yates. "I don't necessarily go with the idea that
we're wackos down here. We are when it comes to women's health care, I'll
tell you that."
Parnham said the attention on the Yates case led media to pay more
attention to the cases that followed, creating an illusion that Texas has
more mothers killing children.
Texas also may bring the media attention on itself, with the aggressive
way it prosecutes the cases, said DePaul University law professor Michelle
Oberman, who has written extensively on mothers who kill their children.
"It gears up the criminal justice system for a death penalty prosecution,
rather than approaching the cases as instances of profound mental
illness," Oberman said.
Oberman added that Texas has one of the toughest insanity standards in the
country, which has led to dramatically different verdicts in similar
Yates, who had a history of schizophrenia and postpartum depression, was
convicted of capital murder in the deaths of three of the children and is
serving a life sentence. Laney was acquitted of capital murder by reason
of insanity after psychiatrists agreed psychotic delusions kept her from
knowing right from wrong.
Schlosser's history of mental illness, her confession to a 911 operator
and her apparent religious connection are similar to Yates and Laney. And
the method Schlosser used shared the bizarre, brutal nature of Laney's
rocks and Yates' systematic drowning.
"To actually sever the arms suggests something special was going on," said
psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, who testified in the trials of Laney and
Yates. "It suggests on its face that there was some specialized psychotic
thinking, but you just don't know."
Authorities discovered the grisly scene at the Schlossers' apartment
Monday after Schlosser's husband called a day-care center and asked
staffers to check on his wife and daughter.
Day-care workers called 911 after talking to the mother; an operator then
An officer had to remove a knife from Schlosser's hand, according to a
search warrant affidavit released Tuesday. The baby was found in her crib,
both arms severed at the shoulder, and died at a hospital a short time
Authorities said the two older daughters in the family, ages 6 and 9, were
at school when police arrived, and that their father was at work.
Schlosser, who had a history of postpartum depression, had been
investigated on child neglect allegations this year, but Texas Child
Protective Services had recently closed a seven-month investigation,
concluding that Schlosser did not pose a risk to her children. Neighbors
said she seemed to be a loving, attentive mother.
Child-protective officials were interviewing Schlosser's daughters and
would talk to the father before deciding whether to remove the girls from
In January, the agency was called to the home after Schlosser was seen
running down the street, with one of her daughters bicycling after her,
authorities said. When officials arrived, the child told them her mother
had left her 6-day-old sister alone in the apartment.
Schlosser appeared at the time to be suffering from postpartum depression
and having a psychotic episode, said Child Protective Services spokeswoman
Schlosser was hospitalized, and later agreed to seek counseling and saw a
psychiatrist, Gonzales said.
"At the time we closed the case, we had been assured that Mom was
stabilized and that she was not a risk to herself or her children," Geoff
Wool, spokesman for the Family and Protective Services Department, said.
A capital murder charge in Texas carries only 2 possible sentences: life
in prison or the death penalty. Prosecutors did not say whether they plan
to seek the death penalty.
(source: Associated Press)
Date with death -- Attorney for George Banks' mother plans to file appeal
Attorney Albert J. Flora Jr. is expected to file another round of appeals
in Luzerne County Court today in his latest attempt to stay next week's
execution of convicted mass murderer George Banks.
Banks is scheduled to die Dec. 2 for the 1982 rampage that left 13 people
dead, including 5 of his own young children.
Flora, who represents Banks' mother, Mary Yelland, said severe mental
illness prevents him from making rational decisions about his case.
"It's our position that he's not competent at this point in time to make
those decisions," said Attorney Flora.
Flora filed an emergency application for a stay of execution with the
state Supreme Court last Friday. That petition claimed Banks, 62, is
chronically psychotic, suffers from a number of mental disorders and is
incompetent, which prevents him from making rational decisions on his own
Flora argues that "chronically psychotic" defendants such as Banks should
not be executed because of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and
unusual punishment, just as the U.S. Supreme Court has said the mentally
retarded cannot be executed.
"Given the documented length and severity of his mental illness, in light
of evolving standards of decency, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on
execution of the insane and mentally retarded should be expanded to
incorporate the severely mentally ill," the lawyers wrote in asking the
state Supreme Court to issue a stay.
Carol Crane, spokeswoman for the Luzerne County district attorney's
office, said prosecutors have until today to file a response to Flora's
appeal to the state Supreme Court.
If or when Flora files an appeal with county court, the district
attorney's office will respond accordingly, Crane said.
Banks was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to death for the September 1982
murder spree that claimed the lives of 13 people, including 5 of his
children, in Wilkes-Barre and Jenkins Township.
Banks' case has been before the state Supreme Court three times. A federal
appeals court twice overturned Banks' death sentence because of
potentially confusing jury instructions.
However, both times, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision. The
latest ruling came this past June and cleared the way for the execution to
be carried out.
Gov. Ed Rendell signed Banks' death warrant Oct. 5 for a scheduled
execution on Thursday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. at the State Correctional
Institution at Rockview, Centre County.
The governor, who began his political career as Philadelphia's district
attorney, called Banks' death warrant "very, very appropriate."
"When I campaigned, I told people I was for the death penalty in the most
severe cases - and I believe this fits into the 'most severe case'
category," Rendell said Tuesday.
Banks, a state prison guard with a history of violence, used an AR-15
semiautomatic rifle to kill five of his children, ages 1 to 6, along with
four current or former girlfriends, a daughter of one of the girlfriends,
the mother and nephew of another girlfriend, and a teenage bystander on
Sept. 25, 1982, in Wilkes-Barre and Jenkins Township.
He barricaded himself inside a friend's house but was persuaded to come
out by a bogus police radio broadcast claiming that some of the children
were still alive but needed blood and organ transplants from their father
to survive, Flora said.
Banks said after his arrest that he acted to spare his own children the
racist abuse he had suffered as a biracial child growing up in
Wilkes-Barre. He was declared mentally competent to stand trial, where he
testified that police had killed some of the victims and displayed gory
photographs of the victims to jurors.
According to Flora's emergency application for a stay of execution, Banks
has made at least four attempts to kill himself, 3 of which were nearly
successful, and has threatened to commit suicide on at least 2 other
occasions. He has also engaged in prolonged hunger strikes that caused his
weight to drop to 102 pounds in 2003.
According to a Nov. 19 report written by Dr. Richard G. Dudley Jr., a
psychiatrist from New York City who was asked to examine Banks by the
Defender Association of Philadelphia, Banks engaged in a "private war with
President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky," and believed the state of
Pennsylvania was being controlled by the Islamic religion.
"Mr. Banks' repeated suicide attempts and hunger strikes or religious
fasts are symptomatic of his severe and chronic mental illness," Dr.
Dudley reported. "The suicide attempts and hunger strikes demonstrate that
he acts on his psychotic thinking in dramatic and life-threatening ways,
which raises serious questions about his competency to make decisions for
If Banks' execution were not stayed, he would become the 4th person put to
death in Pennsylvania since the commonwealth reinstated the death penalty
in 1978. All 3 executed inmates ended their appeals voluntarily.
(source: Citizen Voice)
NORTH CAROLINA----impending execution
Former justices urge mercy----2 N.C. Supreme Court veterans ask Easley to
spare the life of acondemned inmate
2 former Supreme Court justices called Tuesday for Gov. Mike Easley to
grant clemency to death-row inmate Charles Walker based on his history of
Former N.C. chief justice James G. Exum Jr. and former justice J. Phil
Carlton have asked Easley to grant a life sentence for Walker, 39, who is
scheduled to be executed Dec. 3. Walker is to die for the 1992 killing of
Tito Davidson, 20, at a Greensboro apartment.
Walker was hospitalized for schizophrenia at the age of 11 in New York
state, his lawyers say.
"To spare Walker's life and impose a sentence of life imprisonment without
parole is particularly appropriate because of the role Walker's
long-standing mental illness -- paranoid schizophrenia -- played in the
proceeding leading to his sentence of death," Exum wrote to Easley.
Exum's letter said that Walker's mental illness made him unable to fully
understand the consequences of rejecting a plea bargain that would have
spared his life.
Prosecutors offer a different portrait of Walker as a cocaine supplier who
masterminded Davidson's murder, in part to intimidate the lower-level drug
dealers he was working with in Greensboro. They say Walker was motivated
to have Davidson killed in retaliation for Davidson's attempt to steal
Carlton said this was the 1st time he felt compelled to send a letter to
the governor about a specific death-row inmate's upcoming execution. He
and Exum were among 8 former state Supreme Court justices who called in
June for lawmakers to vote on a proposed 2-year moratorium on executions.
Beyond the mental illness, Carlton said, it is likely that if Walker were
tried for 1st-degree murder today, prosecutors would have opted not to
seek the death penalty. Under state law at the time of his 1995 trial,
prosecutors were required to seek the death penalty if any of 11
aggravating factors were part of the crime.
Walker qualified for the death penalty on 2 factors: his prior conviction
for attempted murder and the violence of the killing. Davidson was shot,
beaten and had his throat slit with a Ginzu knife.
(source: News & Observer)
More information about the DeathPenalty