A Laguna Niguel homemaker Tuesday pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the shooting of her two young daughters, and a few minutes later, her lawyers announced that they are investigating whether the woman’s use of the anti-depressant drug Prozac played a role in the killings.
Kristine Marie Cushing, 39, entered her plea as she stood in the prisoner’s holding dock, her head bowed, during a brief hearing before South Orange County Municipal Judge Arthur G. Koelle.
Cushing mumbled a barely audible “not guilty” when asked how she pleaded to first-degree murder charges in the deaths of her daughters, Amy Elizabeth, 8, and Stephanie Marie, 4, on Oct. 13.
Outside the courtroom, her lawyer, Michael J. Cassidy of Santa Ana, said his client was under psychiatric care and for three to five months before the killings had been taking Prozac--a drug blamed in other cases for causing violent behavior.
“What significance it will play in the case, we don’t exactly know, but we’re doing a lot of research on that issue,” Cassidy said, noting that he was consulting medical experts to determine if the drug could have affected his client’s behavior.
Cushing allegedly used a .38-caliber handgun to shoot her daughters in the head in the master bedroom of their Laguna Niguel home before turning the weapon on herself. She suffered a graze wound to the head and moments later called 911 to report what had happened, authorities said.
Court records in the divorce she filed for in September depict a woman under great stress because of a heart condition and the failure of her 17-year marriage to Marine Lt. Col. John P. Cushing Jr., a Gulf War veteran and commander of an El Toro-based fighter jet squadron. The couple were separated in August but continued to share the same house.
Lt. Col. Cushing was present in the courtroom Tuesday but left immediately after the hearing.
If Cassidy pursues a defense based on her use of Prozac, it would add to the list of cases in which it has been alleged that the anti-depressant drug can cause violent behavior. About 75 civil lawsuits filed across the nation have blamed Prozac for inducing violent thoughts that led to murders and suicides.
The drug’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly & Co. of Indianapolis, has defended its safety, blaming negative publicity about the medication on an anti-psychiatry campaign by the Church of Scientology.
In August, the Food and Drug Administration rejected a request to ban the medication, which was made by Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group affiliated with the church. The FDA said it found no evidence to support claims that the drug makes people suicidal and violent.
Court records allege that Cushing told authorities that she was depressed before the shootings. She told the first deputy to arrive at the house the night of the shooting, “I’m crazy. I shot my daughters,” according to police.
Also, as she was being treated for the head wound at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, Cushing told a nurse: “I was depressed so I shot my daughters. I’ve been depressed for about three months.”
Court records also show that Koelle has given permission for four forensic psychiatrists to treat Cushing at Orange County Women’s Jail in Santa Ana.
Cassidy said that Cushing was “extremely withdrawn” and that she only now “realized what has happened.”
Asked about Cushing’s attorneys possible drug defense, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeoffrey L. Robinson said: “We have two dead children and a very disturbed mother. . . . On the other hand, there is a violation of law and we are prepared to go forward to bring about justice.”
A preliminary hearing has been set for Dec. 14.