Baby-Death Conviction Thrown Out : Judge Rules Massip Was Insane When She Ran Over Son

Times Staff Writer

In an extraordinary reversal, a Superior Court judge Friday rejected a jury’s murder verdict against a former Anaheim housewife who drove a car over her infant son and instead found her not guilty by reason of insanity caused by a rare postpartum psychosis.

The stunning decision means that 24-year-old Sheryl Lynn Massip--who had faced life imprisonment following her conviction for second-degree murder--will now spend Christmas with her family, facing only the prospect of court-ordered psychiatric care.

“I couldn’t have asked God for a better Christmas present,” said the weeping Massip, a devout Lutheran who read the Bible while she awaited her sentencing in court. “I got the gift of life.”

Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald, a 12-year veteran of the bench who is regarded as a tough-minded jurist, acknowledged that his action was unprecedented but defended it.


“I know people will say I’ve overstepped my bounds,” he said in an interview, “but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t have any choice but to find her insane. . . . She was bonkers.”

On her 23rd birthday in April, 1987, Massip first tried to throw her colicky, 6-week-old son, Michael Alfredo Massip, into oncoming traffic, then hit him over the head with a blunt object and finally ran over the child with the family Volvo. The infant’s mangled body was found in a trash can near her Anaheim home, after Massip had initially told police the child was kidnaped.

In a defense believed to be the first of its kind in Southern California, Massip pleaded insanity in the killing, claiming she was suffering at the time from postpartum psychosis. That is a rare maternal disorder--possibly hormonally based--thought to provoke severe anxiety, delusions and even violence in about three of every 1,000 new mothers.

But after 7 days of deliberations, an Orange County jury rejected Massip’s insanity plea in the brutal killing, finding her guilty on Nov. 17 of second-degree murder.

Friday’s decision by Fitzgerald exceeded the best hopes of even Massip, her lawyer and the many family members who packed the Santa Ana courtroom.

“When the jury convicted me of second-degree murder, I was prepared for the worst and did a lot of praying,” Massip said in an interview. “I looked at the sentencing date, right before Christmas, and I was thinking (prison) bars, Christmas away from the family.”

Many of Massip’s relatives in Fitzgerald’s courtroom broke into tears after realizing what the judge had done. They then began applauding and finally rushed toward the frail Massip to join in a huge, tearful embrace.

Before Friday, Massip’s attorney, Milton C. Grimes of Santa Ana, had hoped Fitzgerald would either sentence Massip to probation without prison or grant her a new trial.

Instead, Fitzgerald delivered an unprecedented two-part decision that, pending what prosecutors called a near-certain appeal, cleared Massip of murder charges.

He first reduced her second-degree murder conviction to one of voluntary manslaughter. But then, in a ruling that essentially mutes that conviction, he ruled that she was not guilty by reason of insanity.

Unprecedented Action

On rare occasions, trial judges have reduced murder verdicts by juries if the verdicts are considered excessive. But legal observers said that for Fitzgerald to also completely overturn the jury’s finding that Massip was sane is unheard of in the California courts. They could cite no precedent for the action.

Fitzgerald himself acknowledged that the ruling represented “extraordinary relief.” And in an interview, he said: “This is new ground that we’ve plowed today. I don’t know of another court that came to a decision like the one I did, to set aside the jury verdict altogether.

“A trial judge has an obligation to effect justice, and I had to do what I felt was right,” Fitzgerald said. “I just had to go with my conscience.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Borris, stunned by the judge’s reversal of the hard-fought murder conviction that he had gained, said the district attorney’s office is virtually certain to appeal the decision.

“He could have given her probation. He could have given her a new trial. We wouldn’t have agreed but that at least would have been reasonable,” the prosecutor said.

But in ruling Massip insane, Borris said: "(Fitzgerald) did something he doesn’t have the precedent to do. . . . I’m shocked.”

The decision--which Fitzgerald later revealed that he decided on at the last minute--surprised some of the jurors who voted to convict Massip.

Juror Surprised

“I was surprised; I didn’t particularly expect this,” said juror Dean Johnson of Anaheim. “But the best way to express my reaction is a little disappointment. If the jury had thought there was something wrong, we would have come back with a different verdict. We did our job based on the evidence that we heard.”

The postpartum insanity defense is still relatively new to the courts, having been used in only about 15 cases nationwide in the last several years. Legal and medical experts were looking to the Massip case to help establish the credibility of the defense.

After Fitzgerald made his ruling, Massip’s father, Ed DeLano of Rowland Heights, began crying uncontrollably. He then turned to one of Massip’s young cousins who had been sitting on his lap and said, “I told you the judge was a good guy.”

DeLano sat through nearly every day of a 2-month court ordeal, hearing testimony day in and day out about the brutal killing that claimed his grandchild.

Thursday night, the day before Massip’s sentencing, the DeLanos held a prayer service for Massip with friends and family that doubled as a Christmas celebration “just in case” she was taken away to prison Friday, Ed DeLano said.

As it turned out, the early Christmas celebration wasn’t needed, and Massip walked out with her family. She will spend Christmas with her mother, Patricia, Ed DeLano’s ex-wife, in La Palma.

Said Ed DeLano after the ruling: “I think justice has finally been done. I was surprised, because at this point I was just hoping (Fitzgerald) would just let her out on probation.”

Alfredo Massip of Anaheim, the father of the dead baby, stormed out of the courtroom after Fitzgerald’s ruling and, as he has done since the outset of the case, refused to speak with reporters.

He had served Sheryl Massip with divorce papers while she was in jail awaiting murder charges and was a prime witness for the prosecution at her trial.

And in a scathing letter that he sent to Fitzgerald before the sentencing, Alfredo Massip urged a harsh, though unspecified, sentence for his ex-wife and admonished the judge for refusing to order Massip into custody after she was found guilty last month by the jury.

He asked Fitzgerald to imagine headlines reading: “BABY KILLER GOES FREE.” And he asked Fitzgerald: “Will you let a murderer walk out free as a bird? Are you going to Sheryl’s pity party?”

Sorry for Ex-Husband

Sheryl Massip said that she feels sorry for her ex-husband but, at the same time, resentful.

“I feel bad for him,” she said. “His heart just is not in the right place. He’s not about to take a step back and look at the full picture and say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t my wife that ran over my baby.’

“He just doesn’t understand this disease (postpartum psychosis). I was praying that people would understand. The jury did not understand, but I’m just thankful the judge did.”

Massip testified during her trial that, in the weeks after the birth of her son in the spring of 1987, she suffered seizures, delusions and heard voices telling her to “put the child out of its misery.”

Massip and family members close to her said they still do not consider the young woman fully recovered from the effects of the disease. She sees a therapist twice a week and undergoes hormone treatment.

Drastic Mood Swings

“She still has drastic mood swings,” said Cindy DeLano, Massip’s stepmother. “She’ll become extremely depressed, retreat from the family. She still needs professional help.”

Under the ruling handed down Friday by Fitzgerald, Massip must begin in February a complete diagnostic exam by state psychiatric professionals to determine the status of her mental health. That examination will take up to 90 days.

Because she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, the court can in theory keep Massip institutionalized for up to 11 years if physicians determine that she is still insane.

But both prosecutor Borris and defense attorney Grimes said they have no doubt her actual time under state supervision will be far shorter than that, perhaps only a months. “The woman’s not nuts,” Borris said.

Indeed, as Fitzgerald delivered his sentence, he told Massip he is hopeful she will soon have a complete recovery and go on to “a productive life.”

A Lot of Healing

Massip said after the ruling: “I’m still kind of in a shocked, numbed state. This is just wonderful. But I still have a lot of healing to do.

“And (Fitzgerald’s ruling) still doesn’t bring back my son,” she said. “That’s a heavy, heavy burden to have to live with--to know that I’m the one physically who did that. . . . I still have thoughts of ‘Why wasn’t it me, instead?’ ”

Massip, a deeply religious woman, said she is placing her hopes for the future largely in the hands of God. As she sat in the courtroom before her sentencing, Massip read Psalm 121 and the first chapter of the Book of John from the Bible. Those passages, she said, showed that God will never forsake her.

A one-time athlete and accordion player, Massip said she now wants to continue professional treatment, keep up with her musical interests and, most of all, regain some of the independence she has lost in the last 2 years.

She also wants to help educate other women about the effects of postpartum psychosis, to try and prevent others from going through her experience.

Marriage and the possibility of having children are too far off to even consider, Massip said. “I can’t imagine those things right now. I’m just hoping to get back on my feet again.”