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Prosecuting the unthinkable: Experts question handling of cases where mothers are accused of killing their children

A makeshift shrine at the Clancy house in Duxbury.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Two decades after she killed her five children, Andrea Yates remains in a Texas psychiatric hospital. Every year, she waives her right to an evaluation to determine whether she should be released.

She faced life in prison and possibly even the death penalty at one point. But Yates’s eventual commitment to a psychiatric facility put the potentially devastating impact of postpartum mental illness into the national spotlight. It also sparked a broader societal discussion over how the legal system should handle such cases.

That debate was reignited last week when Lindsay Clancy was accused of strangling her three children in their Duxbury home. Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz quickly filed homicide charges that could send the 38-year-old labor and delivery nurse to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.


But legal analysts and health experts said other options should be considered, pointing to evidence that Clancy was suffering from postpartum mental illness that probably played a role in the tragedy.

Clancy has not been arraigned; she is in a Boston hospital after she jumped out of a window, falling 20 feet, in an apparent suicide attempt on Jan. 24. Five-year-old Cora and 3-year-old Dawson were pronounced dead at the hospital that night. The third child, 8-month-old Callan, died three days later.

“A mother taking the life of a child is unlike any other homicide,” said George Parnham, a Houston attorney who represented Yates and visits her at the hospital every couple of months.

He now speaks to groups across the country about how severe postpartum depression and psychosis can turn a loving mother into an irrational killer.

Parnham said Yates, now 58, believed she was “doing the right thing” by drowning her children in 2001 so they would go to heaven. A Texas jury convicted her of capital murder but rejected the death penalty. After that verdict was overturned, a second jury found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity. Parnham described the trial as an uphill battle to convince jurors that she was insane at the time of the slayings.


“Insanity is probably the most difficult of all defenses to prove,” said Parnham, adding that jurors tend to approach such cases thinking the mother should have been able to act rationally and seek psychiatric help. “You have to get the jury to see the actions through the eyes of the woman on trial. . . . You have to get them to set aside this notion that this woman should be burned at the stake.”

In recent years, legal and health advocates have sought to bring more awareness to the nature of postpartum depression, though that work has not always translated into policy change in the legal system.

In 2018, Illinois became the first state to pass a law that allows judges to consider postpartum illnesses like depression and psychosis as mitigating factors when sentencing mothers for harming their children. An effort to pass similar legislation in Massachusetts failed two years ago. But supporters say the proposal will probably be refiled this legislative session, and they hope it wins more backing in the wake of the Duxbury slayings.

Supporters of the measure argue that postpartum psychosis is an extremely serious and destructive condition, but is also temporary and should not necessarily lead to a life in prison.


“It just doesn’t really make any sense to have women in life sentences for a temporary mental condition,” said Ashley C. Healy, a legislative aide for Worcester Democrat James O’Day, who proposed the legislation, and who cochairs a legislative commission on postpartum depression.

“Because it’s rare, people don’t understand” why such a law is needed, she said. “Maybe this is an opportunity for people to dig deeper and understand the why.”

Beth Stone, a spokesperson for the Plymouth district attorney’s office, said in a statement Friday that the office’s job “is to follow the facts and evidence and letter of the law. . . . Our job is also about getting justice for the Clancy children and the community.”

Stone said evidence is still unfolding in the case.

Former Suffolk district attorney Daniel F. Conley, who brought multiple prosecutions where the defendant’s mental health was an issue, said he believes Cruz made the right decision by filing murder charges against Clancy.

Conley said the prosecution and questions about whether Clancy was suffering from postpartum depression will play out as the case unfolds in court. Meanwhile, he said, the horrific nature of the case raises concerns that Clancy would pose a danger to the public if released.

“If there is a legitimate diagnosis, potentially a mental health issue, that’s likely to be one, if not the, pivotal issue down the road,’’ said Conley, who is now a partner at the Mintz law firm. “A jury will decide whether she was able to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.”


In an emotional appeal on a GoFundMe fund-raising page set up for his family, Clancy’s husband, Patrick Clancy, wrote that “the real Lindsay was generously loving and caring towards everyone,” and he said he forgives his wife and urges others to do the same.

Lindsay Clancy wrote about her long struggle with postpartum depression on her Facebook page last summer.

Some countries that follow common-law legal traditions, such as Canada and England, allow alternatives for prosecutors and the courts to consider in cases where mothers suffering from postpartum depression kill their children, according to mental health experts. Canada has an “infanticide” law for consideration in cases in which a mother is accused of killing a child under 12 months old if the evidence shows the mother is “disturbed” and suffering from mental illness caused by childbirth. Infanticide carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

A mother who kills a child who is more than 12 months old would not be governed by the infanticide law, though she could still cite the law to present a defense of not responsible by reason of mental disorder.

The intent of the infanticide law is to “account for the difficulties associated with biological motherhood that includes the effect of sociocultural conditions on new mothers,” said Kirsten Kramar, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary and author of the book “Unwilling Mothers, Unwanted Babies: Infanticide in Canada.”

In an e-mail, she said, “All common law countries (except the US as far as I can tell) recognize the effect of the biological changes associated with childbirth and lactation to mitigate against the punishment framework associated with murder and have not seen any value in sentencing women to life imprisonment for neonaticide.”


Janice Bassil, a Boston-based defense attorney who has represented clients who pursued an insanity defense after being charged with murder, said that if an expert finds that Clancy — or anyone else in the same circumstance — was compelled by mental illness to act as they did, then they should be in a mental health hospital.

“If you believe in justice and redemption, then you believe that people who are mentally ill who have been found not [criminally] responsible should be treated,” not imprisoned, Bassil said. ”I certainly have had cases where . . . mentally ill people were put in hospitals and are really doing much better being medicated properly.”

She added, “Most of the clients I’ve had that have been found not responsible and have gotten good care, they are still tormented. They really are. They’re still tormented by what they did. . . . They struggle with it.”

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her @shelleymurph. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him @JREbosglobe. Sonel Cutler can be reached at sonel.cutler@globe.com. Follow her @cutler_sonel.