Advertisement

Postpartum Psychosis Key to Murder Defense

Times Staff Writer

The prospective juror nodded knowingly as the lawyer defending an accused child-killer asked if she had ever heard of a medical condition known as postpartum depression.

For a few days after the birth of her own child, the young woman in the jury box recalled, “I would start to cry for no reason . . . uncontrollably.”

The woman’s experience cut to the heart of the defense in an emotionally charged trial under way this week in Superior Court in Santa Ana--a defense that is unique to Southern California but one that is gaining some credibility nationwide.

Once picked, a jury in the trial will be asked to think the unthinkable--to imagine that an apparently caring person and enthusiastic mother, hit by a rare maternal sickness that even experts do not fully understand, could mentally “snap” and brutally kill her own newborn.

Advertisement

The facts in the case, grisly as they are, remain essentially undisputed:

On her birthday in April, 1987, then 23-year-old Sheryl Lynn Massip of Anaheim, distraught over the constant crying of her colicky 6-week-old son, first tried to throw the child and herself into oncoming traffic, police said. Then, she hit him over the head with a blunt instrument. And finally, she told her husband and a court-appointed psychiatrist, she twice ran over the child with her car.

The infant’s tiny, battered body later was found dumped in a trash can shortly after Massip first told police that the child had been snatched from her arms by a mystery woman with red hair and a gun.

Massip’s lawyer, Milton C. Grimes, pushing for an insanity acquittal, calls the killing “a textbook case of postpartum psychosis.” That is a rare and still-puzzling disorder--an extreme form of the common “baby blues"--that some researchers say can prompt tremendous biological and mental changes and even violence in some mothers.

Advertisement

Prosecutors call the case something else: murder.

“I think there probably is such a thing as postpartum psychosis, but this isn’t it,” Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas J. Borris said in an interview this week as he and defense attorney Grimes began picking jurors for a trial that is expected to last a month.

“This is a woman who murdered her child and then engaged in a grand kidnapping cover-up story that was lucid and coherent,” Borris argued. “She’s not crazy; she appears to be normal today.

“I’ve talked with women who have killed their babies, and the ones who were suffering from this illness are suffering for life. They weren’t the bouncy woman we see in court today.”

Advertisement

Experts who have examined Massip split over her sanity at the time of the killing, reflecting the deep divisions in the psychiatric profession nationwide over the causes, symptoms and diagnoses of such cases. The few lawyers and psychiatrists who have worked with postpartum depression will be watching the Orange County case closely.

And those close to Massip herself say she, too, wants to help shed light on a disease that may be unfamiliar even to women suffering from it and plans to speak out publicly after her trial.

(Massip declined to discuss her case for this story, saying, “That will all come out in the trial.”)

The young woman’s first concern is more immediate: proving to a jury that she is not guilty by reason of temporary insanity of a murder charge that could net her 26 years to life in prison.

Advertisement

Those close to Massip, who is living at an undisclosed location, insist that the one-time accordion player and softball pitcher is anything but the “bouncy” and unrepentant killer that the district attorney’s office makes her out to be.

‘Made Me a Different Man’

“I never want to see my worst enemy go through what she has,” said Grimes, the defense attorney. “Working on this case, seeing her, has affected me more greatly than any other case. It’s made me a different man and a different father.”

Family and friends say Sheryl Massip has endured tremendous pain from an ordeal that cost her both a baby she desperately wanted and a husband she idolized. Alfredo Massip, father of the dead child, divorced Sheryl soon after her arrest and is now a prime witness for the prosecution.

Advertisement

In a tearful interview outside the courtroom last week, Ed DeLano of Rowland Heights, father of the defendant, said: “I’m scared for my daughter, and I hate to see her go through this. Up to that point (of her alleged illness), she was a perfectly fine individual.

“I know that was not my daughter operating out there (when she killed her child). My daughter was absolutely incapable of killing anyone or anything.”

And so it will be up to a jury to decide what Sheryl Massip’s mental state may have been when she ran over her own child on April 29, 1987.

Two years after her marriage to the Cuban-born Alfredo Massip, Sheryl was pregnant. And the parents couldn’t have been happier.

Advertisement

Sheryl got the little boy that she and her husband had wanted badly, and the proud parents named the first-born child Michael Alfredo Massip. The father’s parents unfurled a banner on their street, hailing the joyous event.

But family and friends say things changed suddenly after the child was born.

Lorene Jonsson who lived in the apartment across the hall from the Massips and who frequently offered help with the new child, saw “a dramatic change in (Sheryl’s) personality.”

In place of the “very happy, excited, expectant mother” Jonsson had known just a few weeks before, Sheryl became after the birth “really depressed-looking, walking around with her face down all the time,” the neighbor recalled.

Advertisement

The colicky baby cried 15 to 18 hours a day, Sheryl later told the court-appointed psychiatrist. And the more the baby cried, the more frustrated and distressed the mother became.

In Love With Her Husband

“She was very much in love with her husband, and she was afraid that the husband would think of her as a bad mother because of all the crying and wouldn’t love her as much,” Jonsson said.

According to her family, Sheryl had trouble sleeping and would often have to go to her father’s home to try to get some rest. She couldn’t eat. She often cried inexplicably. Her eyes constantly bloodshot, her face drawn, Sheryl deteriorated physically and became listless. A younger sister had to bathe her. She sought medical help.

Advertisement

“She didn’t know what was happening to her, and she tried in every way she knew how to get help,” her father said. “The doctors, her family--we tried, but obviously we didn’t do enough. I’m mad at myself.”

Then came her birthday in 1987, 43 days after Michael’s birth and the day that Ed DeLano says his daughter “snapped.”

Trying to get some rest, Sheryl had stayed at her father’s the night before. She came home around 8 a.m. and woke up her husband, who had stayed with the baby.

Never Saw Son Again

Advertisement

According to testimony he offered in court during the preliminary hearing in July, 1987, Alfredo gave the baby to his wife and, having been kept up much of the night himself by Michael’s crying, went back to sleep.

He says he never saw his son alive again.

Police say that several hours after taking the child from her husband, Sheryl Massip ran over the infant with her car and dumped the body several blocks away in a trash can.

Sheryl heard “voices” telling her to “put him out of his misery,” she later told a court-appointed psychiatrist.

Advertisement

“My mind did not want to believe it,” she related to the examining psychiatrist. “Satan had taken . . . over.”

Alfredo Massip, who runs a janitorial service, told the court in a preliminary hearing that he quickly realized that the kidnaping story Sheryl initially gave to him and the police was a ruse.

“Where’s the baby?” Alfredo recalled asking his wife shortly after police began their investigation. After a pause, “her first words were, ‘I’ll rot in hell,’ ” Alfredo said. “She said that about three times. . . . Then she told me that she had run over the baby.”

Alfredo hugged his wife. But in his court appearance last year, Alfredo--who has remained silent about the case--showed little sympathy for the woman he would soon divorce.

Advertisement

Asked if he loved her, Alfredo told the court: “Right now? . . . No.” And then: “I hate what she did. . . . I have no feelings (toward her).”

Dr. Susan Hickman says she has seen many Sheryl Massips.

A psychotherapist in San Diego who runs a private counseling group called the Postpartum Mood Disorder Clinic, Hickman has treated several hundred cases of postpartum depression in recent years.

And Sheryl Massip, the doctor argues, represents a classic case of the disorder: a woman with no history of mental illness or criminal activity who simply loses control after giving birth.

Advertisement

“We see a fine mother who goes completely crazy,” said Hickman, who will be a chief expert witness for the defense in Massip’s trial. “There’s a break from reality.”

Postpartum depression is believed to afflict about one in 10 new mothers. The disorder can show itself in mothers through abnormal behavior, such as crying uncontrollably, undergoing massive panic attacks or running down the street naked. And in extreme cases, experts say, the depression can turn to psychosis and violence.

Hickman says her research suggests that 64 babies a year in California may be killed each year by mothers suffering from the disorder, with most of the cases going unreported or listed as child abuse killings or crib deaths.

Relatively Unexplored

Advertisement

Yet the illness itself is relatively unexplored, meriting only a brief line of mention in the American Psychiatric Assn.'s manual of disorders. Some critics challenge the existence of such a disorder in the first place, while other researchers differ over its roots.

Hickman, for instance, insists that postpartum depression is caused by a hormonal deficiency, with its symptoms having little or no connection to outside events.

But Dr. Leslie Hartley Gise, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York who has studied the phenomenon, said there exists not a shred of evidence to support such a biological theory. Researchers simply don’t know how the disorder works, she said in an interview.

The disorder has created even more turmoil in the courts than it has in the psychiatric clinics.

Advertisement

To date, legal analysts say the postpartum psychosis-insanity defense has been used in about 15 trials across the country, with guilty verdicts and acquittals handed out about evenly.

The Massip case is believed to be the first in Southern California in which the defense will be used. A Sacramento woman was acquitted by reason of insanity on the defense after killing her child in 1983.

Early Stage of Defense

“We’re at a very early stage in the courts with this particular form of the insanity defense. And so what you have now is a bunch of cases in different places, and what we’re finding is a lot of inconsistency from case to case,” said Prof. Daniel Katkin, a Penn State professor who recently organized a conference on the legal implications of postpartum depression.

Advertisement

Lawyers who try to prove postpartum psychosis will probably have to show not only that their clients suffered from postpartum psychosis, but also that such a disorder exists at all.

“In every case, the lawyers have to start from scratch,” Katkin said. “The judges are going to start off by saying, ‘I never heard of it. Prove it.’ ”

That will be the task that awaits Sheryl Massip and Grimes, her attorney, over the next month.

One court-appointed psychiatrist who examined the defendant, Dr. Kaushal K. Sharma of the University of Southern California School of Medicine, rejected that argument, saying he did not believe that Sheryl Massip was legally insane when she killed her child.

Advertisement

But Dr. Hickman will argue otherwise.

“My hope is that we could see humane treatment for these women (who suffer postpartum psychosis),” Hickman said. “We have to get out of the witch hunts of the medieval ages and help these women rather than victimize them again.”


Advertisement
Advertisement