Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part Two


Andrea Yates
Andrea Yates

Laney's case had many parallels with that of Andrea Yates. Both women lived in Texas and home-schooled their children. Both were deeply religious. Both felt they had no choice but to do what they did to their children. Both called 911. And both had some of the same psychiatrists assessing their states of mind for their trials. Five experts came into the case for Laney, including Dr. Philip Resnick, who had served on Andrea Yates' defense team, and Dr. Park Dietz, who was hired by the prosecutor.

But Laney's 2004 trial unfolded quite differently.

While the defense psychiatrists had no trouble testifying that Laney had been delusional and psychotic at the time of the crime and could not appreciate that what she was doing was wrong, the surprise came with the prosecution's expert, Dr. Park Dietz. He had been instrumental in convincing a jury that despite her terrible history of mental illness Andrea Yates had known that what she was doing was wrong and thus she was sane when she murdered her children. In the Laney case, he surprised everyone by saying the opposite.

Dr. Park Dietz
Dr. Park Dietz

From his assessment, he decided that Laney did not know that what she was doing was wrong. She believed she was following God's orders. She admitted that she might have been aware that what she had done was illegal, but she was not thinking about that. She imagined that she and Andrea Yates, who also had started with the youngest, would together be the two witnesses when the world came to an end.

"She struggled over whether to obey God or to selfishly keep her children," Dietz testified. His impression was that she had felt she had no choice.

Another psychiatrist for the prosecution, Dr. Edward Gripon, agreed that the presence of mental illness was obvious. Several of the experts thought that Laney had suffered from an undiagnosed psychosis over the past three years.

One more expert witness was Dr. William Reed, a court-appointed psychiatrist who used the word "crazy" to refer to Laney, and he agreed with the others.

Among the evidence they used was Laney's post-crime demeanor. Six days after the attacks, she was calm as she described for psychiatrists what she had done. There were no tears. She was awaiting her children's resurrections. With a smile, she said that because she had obeyed God, "I feel like he will reveal his power and they will be raised up. They will become alive again." Dr. Resnick said that since she did not believe she had carried out God's orders perfectly — she wasn't certain about Aaron — she lapped up water from the floor and from a toilet bowl.

The Laney children
The Laney children

After getting antipsychotic medication, she eventually saw her acts in a different light and showed remorse. She realized with horror that she had suffered from a hallucination that had triggered her acts.

Laney's sister, Pam Sepmoree, testified that Laney had been acting strangely in the days leading up to the murders. She was losing weight, eating less, and reading her Bible more. Sepmoree said that the boys were her sister's life.

Despite this unprecedented agreement among all the psychiatrists, prosecutors nevertheless presented a case against Laney that certain behaviors indicated sanity. She had said that she believed that her husband would think her acts were wrong, so she tried to keep Aaron's cries from alerting him. She had called 911 to turn herself in. And she had told a jailer that she might need an attorney. In addition, Laney had no documented history of mental illness, only self-reported episodes: delusions about her baby's feces and a hallucination of smelling sulpher, which she associated with the devil.

Jurors got the case on the afternoon of April 3, and it took them seven hours that same day to acquit Laney of all charges by reason of insanity. She was transferred to a maximum security hospital where medical evaluations will determine when she can eventually be released.

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