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Texas Mother Accused in Slaying of Children

Aired May 12, 2003 - 20:04   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The story of a woman in an East Texas jail cell. That is where she is tonight. We're told sometimes that she sits in the fetal position, other times she walks around singing gospel music. Occasionally she'll stop and pray, sometimes cries hysterically.
Her name is Deanna Lejeune Laney. You're likely to hear it a lot in the coming weeks. She's accused of beating two of her three children to death because, she says, God told her to. Now that happened this Saturday.

Today the wheels of justice began turning. Katherine Garcia of CNN affiliate WFAA joins from us the Smith County courthouse in Tyler,Texas.

What's the latest?

KATHERINE GARCIA, WFAA CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, Deanna Laney made her first court appearance today here this afternoon in Tyler, Texas. And already there is a lot of talk about whether the 38-year-old mother is competent to stand trial.

Laney, as you may know, is charged with capital murder in the beating deaths of her 8-year-old son, Joshua, and 6-year-old son, Luke. She is also charged with aggravated assault in the beating of her 14-month-old boy, Aaron.

Laney appeared in the Tyler courtroom for what's called a magistrate's warning. Basically, the judge wanting to make sure she understood her rights, saying since the arrest Laney seemed a little confused. Those were the judge's words.

Laney's attorney told the judge he believes Laney can't say she understands what's even going on. But tonight, the Smith County district attorney says he's seen no evidence yet that would prevent Laney from standing trial.


JACK SKEEN, SMITH COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Based on the evidence that we're aware of, that we believe the charge of capital murder is the appropriate charge, which has been filed against the defendant.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GARCIA: Smith County sheriff's deputies discovered the boys' bodies beaten with rocks Saturday morning in the yard of their rural home, the same home where tonight there is now a small memorial of flowers and stuffed animals. The sheriff here says Laney calmly told a dispatcher during a 20-minute cell phone call that she did indeed kill those two boys, and he says tonight that he is considering that a confession.

Now the 14-month-old boy beaten but found breathing, he remains in a hospital not far from here and we are told he is in stable condition.

Meanwhile, Deanna Laney remains held on a $3 million bond. The next step, we expect, is a formal arraignment. And also, the D.A. says that the death sentence is a possibility if this case goes forward as he sees it, but he has not made that decision yet -- Anderson.

Katherine Garcia, CNN affiliate WFAA, appreciate you joining us tonight with that update.

Want to turn now to the question that every one is asking, of course: how could a mother kill her own children?

We're joined by Dr. Neill Epperson. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and joins us from New Haven, Connecticut.

Dr. Epperson, thanks for being with us.

You've heard this story, the reports of how she acted, both once police apprehended her and in her jail cell. What do you think is going on with her?

DR. NEILL EPPERSON, ASST. PROF. OF PSYCHIATRY, YALE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: Well, certainly, she's behaving or continuing to behave quite erratically, vacillating between crying and whimpering, and then singing gospel songs and praying. It sounds to people, you know, in the community, the psychiatry community, that she's suffering from a psychotic episode. Certainly, that would be consistent with her presentation.

COOPER: What is so unusual, though, from what we're hearing from police -- and of course, these are initial reports. This just happened on Saturday in this town. But police are saying they have no evidence that she has a history of any kind of mental illness, and that she's not taking any medication currently. That would be surprising for someone -- I mean, do people suddenly at age 38 or whatever she is have a psychotic episode?

EPPERSON: Well certainly, psychosis can occur at any time. There are periods where they have the peak incidents, certainly often is younger than 38. But there are many reasons why somebody might become psychotic. Certainly people who develop very serious depression can also become psychotic. And depression can occur at any time across a life span, any time across a life span, both men and women.

COOPER: We know her third child, 14 months old, you know, of course that raises the issue of postpartum depression. Does that sound possible in this case?

EPPERSON: Well, again, usually the onset of depression in the post natal period, if it is to occur for the first time, or to be an exacerbation of a previous depression, usually occurs before 14 months.

Often people, though, hide their illness. They hide their depression, they hide their unusual thoughts because again, you know, society and families all expect a mother to, you know, perform and to be a good mother and to admit they're having some unusual thoughts or beliefs or not feeling quite themselves, maybe intimidating to them. They may feel like they don't know who to turn to and they don't want people to judge them.

So just because we don't have a history of her having psychiatric symptoms doesn't mean that's not what is going on in this situation.

COOPER: All right. Dr. Neill Epperson from Yale University, appreciate you joining us.


COOPER: Thanks for your perspective.

Well, late this afternoon, Deanna Lejeune Laney's court-appointed attorney introduced himself by saying he is -- quote -- "old courthouse trash and proud of it" -- endquote. In a colorful question-and-answer session, attorney Buck Files (ph) said there are similarities between his client and the case of Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her children in Texas in 2001. Files said he has already talked by phone with Yates' attorney, George Parnham.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will I tell you what we said? No. Did we speak very long? No. Did he call and say, You're in for a rollercoaster ride that you will never forget and which will be terribly unpleasant? Yes.


COOPER: Attorney George Parnham joins us from Houston. He also represented Clara Harris, the woman convicted of killing her husband in the so-called "murder by Mercedes" case earlier this year.

Mr. Parnham, thanks for joining us. Any comment on what you talked about with this court-appointed attorney?

GEORGE PARNHAM, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, I can't go into the content. Buck called. He's a very fine lawyer and he'll do a wonderful job. But I did express to him a little bit of my own personal reaction and impact on my personal life by becoming involved in the Andrea defense.

COOPER: I knew you wouldn't be able to answer, I just had to ask the question anyway.


COOPER: What -- when you first heard about this -- just, this horrible tragedy, I imagine your thoughts went back to Andrea Yates. How do the cases differ or seem similar to you?

PARNHAM: Well, my thoughts actually never leave Andrea, with or without what happened in Tyler. But there seems to be a parallel of circumstances that exist in the Tyler case, with some of the circumstances that existed in Andrea's case.

The 911 call, the compulsion to do what she did based on God demanding that this woman -- apparently, this woman in Tyler had heard voices. And I know that apparently there was no evidence of mental illness. I'd be very interested in trying to determine what the neighbors and relatives would say about the woman in Tyler after the birth of her children.

COOPER: Now, Mr. Parnham, as you know, under Texas law, a person cannot be found insane if the jury determines that they knew right from wrong at the time of the crime. The fact that there was this 911 call in which police say she seemed calm, that in fact for a lengthy period of time on the phone she gave them directions to her house, the fact that all these alleged crimes were allegedly committed while the husband was asleep, and the level of violence. Does it indicate to you -- I mean, do you think she knew right from wrong and will that be the key in defending her?

PARNHAM: You know, that determination obviously will have to be made by the attorney that represents her. And I think it's important to take each of those circumstances that you brought up and view those circumstances -- if in fact she is experiencing a psychotic episode -- to view those circumstances through the eyes of a psychotic individual.

It may well have been by calling 911, she knew full well that she had to call 911 to get someone out there and to be able to witness, for instance, what she did at behest of the voices she had interpreted to be the voice of God. You know, there are lots of explanations other than the fact that it was premeditated, that she knew what she was doing was wrong. There are a lot of psychiatric explanations that can be tendered for her actions.

COOPER: And it is certainly early days here. This just happened on Saturday. A lot of questions, a lot of questions still to be answered. George Parnham, appreciate you joining us right now.

PARNHAM: You bet.

COOPER: Thanks very much.


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