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Postpartum defense would find knowledgeable jury in O.C. case

When Sonia Hermosillo was rolled into court last month in a wheelchair and handcuffs, the 31-year-old La Habra woman accused of killing her baby exhibited signs of the postpartum psychosis her husband says she suffered.

She was too distraught and unresponsive, a week after 7-month-old Noe fell or was thrown to his death from the fourth floor of a parking garage, to enter a plea to charges of murder and assault on a child. Her arraignment in Orange County Superior Court has been put off to the end of September, and she remains under suicide watch at the county jail.

As Hermosillo begins her odyssey through the justice system, medical and legal analysts predict that if she pursues an insanity defense, she will encounter judges and jurors better educated about the extremes of postpartum afflictions than even a decade ago and perhaps more inclined to see her as a victim of mental illness rather than a premeditated killer.

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“Most people are only one or two degrees of separation from someone who has had this,” Robert Weisberg, a Stanford criminal law professor, said of postpartum illness. “I don’t think this is junk science. It has salience for people. You’ve had celebrities like Brooke Shields, someone of great fame and sterling character, describing this as almost fatal.... Even if you can’t exactly identify with it, it resonates as something that happens to real people.”

Hermosillo’s public defender, Chuck Hasse, hasn’t disclosed his client’s defense and did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Case law is limited in infanticides in which mothers have claimed to suffer postpartum psychosis, and the judgments handed down to the few that have gone to trial over the last 60 years have varied wildly. In the early years of postpartum defenses, courts tended to convict for murder and issue long sentences. But even in some of those cases, higher courts later overturned the punishment in favor of treatment.

Should Hermosillo claim postpartum psychosis and ask a jury to acquit her, legal experts say, her fate will probably depend on how effectively her lawyers make a case that she couldn’t tell right from wrong at the time of the baby’s plunge from the Children’s Hospital of Orange County parking structure.

Prosecutors are seeking a murder conviction that could send Hermosillo to prison for 25 years. Scott Simmons, the senior deputy district attorney handling her case, said her removal of a helmet worn by the baby to correct a skull deformity and her presence of mind in validating her parking ticket before fleeing the garage suggest “she did know what she was doing.”

Prosecutors seldom bring capital murder charges against mothers claiming to suffer postpartum psychosis because there is less desire among jurors to impose the ultimate punishment in those cases, said Jonathan Turley, a professor of torts and constitutional law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“When a mother kills her child, many jurors understand that to be a horrific act that contains its own severe punishment,” Turley said, citing major advances in the education of judges and the public about postpartum illness.

“The law has caught up with the science that this is a legitimate criminal defense,” he said. “There was a time when it was rejected as a rather convenient and unsupported form of insanity defense.”

Melissa Murray, a UC Berkeley professor of family and criminal law, said she found 18 cases in which women charged with murdering their children asserted a defense of temporary insanity because of postpartum psychosis. About half the women were acquitted and committed to mental institutions for treatment, she said.

Murray said the women thought to be most susceptible to postpartum psychosis, those with financial difficulties or stressful family relations, are the least likely to be noticed by medical professionals because they often lack health insurance for postnatal follow-up with doctors.

The cause of postpartum psychosis is still poorly understood, said Rita Suri, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Besides previous mental illness, risk factors include past physical or mental abuse, stress, and little help from husbands, family or friends. Hormones are also thought to play a role. In the hours after childbirth, estrogen and progesterone fall sharply, which could be a trigger for the illness, Suri said.

Mild postpartum depression, often called the “baby blues,” affects about 80% of new mothers for a few days or weeks, researchers say. About one in 1,000 new mothers suffers from the most severe form of the mental illness, postpartum psychosis, which tends to afflict those with a history of psychiatric illness like bipolar disorder, Suri said. Women with the condition lose touch with reality, have hallucinations — often of a religious nature — and often fail to interact with or care for their babies.

The first case in which a new mother claimed postpartum psychosis as a defense, Skoech vs. Illinois in 1951, involved the young mother of a 6-day-old boy found strangled by a diaper. Dorothy Skoech’s husband and mother-in-law testified that she had appeared insane after the birth, and a neurologist and psychiatrist gave a name to the psychosis that drives a mother to murder. Skoech was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but the state high court later reversed her murder conviction.

Andrea Yates, a suburban Houston housewife who methodically drowned her children after hearing a divine message to save them from her, was initially convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Under Texas law, a defendant must prove insanity at the time of the crime, regardless of whether she had a documented history of mental illness. Yates’ conviction was overturned by the Texas high court because the prosecution’s key witness gave false testimony that might have prejudiced the jury. Jurors at her second trial in 2006 found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She remains confined to a mental hospital.

In Orange County, a jury found Sheryl Lynn Massip guilty of second-degree murder for driving over her infant son in 1987. A judge overturned that verdict, ruling that she was clearly insane at the time, and sent her to outpatient psychiatric treatment.

Women of reproductive age have among the highest rates of mental illness, research shows. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that about 1 in 7 women was treated for depression between a year before pregnancy and a year after giving birth.

The Affordable Care Act, signed by President Obama last year, includes the Melanie Blocker Stokes Mothers Act, which allocates federal money to raise public awareness and fund medical research on postpartum illnesses. Stokes, a Chicago woman, killed herself in 2001 while battling postpartum depression.

Postpartum psychosis “is way beyond postpartum blues” but is treatable with anti-psychotic medication, said Mark I. Levy, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco. “Failure to bond with the infant, which is such a normal and instinctive response by most mothers, is a warning sign that this mother needs help right away and that it’s urgent,” he said.

carol.williams@latimes.com

shari.roan@latimes.com


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