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A seemingly perfect, deeply religious mother kills her children because she believed God commanded it, thereby creating a dramatic controversy over whether she is guilty of murder. If acquitted, she may be released.
The two older boys, ages 6 and 12, hand-lettered their signs for Mother’s Day — “Thank God for Mothers” and “Mother’s Love Grows Here” — and set them out near the front door, while the 14-month-old baby watched their labor of love. This home belonged to a seemingly perfect family: a loving husband and wife, devoted to each other and their three sons, planning a big family barbeque for Mother’s Day.
Overnight, a stunning tragedy struck. The devoutly religious mother, with no history of mental illness, acted on a secret delusion. From several signs she saw during the day, she believed that God had ordered her to sacrifice her sons, just as He had commanded Abraham in the Old Testament to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. This story is a terrifying tale of sudden descent into unthinkable madness. Her trial created a dramatic legal controversy over whether a person who kills because she truly believed God commanded it can be found guilty of murder. Today, she is working toward the unsettling possibility of eventual release, and, surprisingly, she might achieve it.
When a defendant’s severe mental illness is suddenly expressed in a violent act that he or she believes was commanded by God, it can cause moral or legal controversy. The media obsesses over whether religious devotion is to blame for the violence, even when the violence clearly was not inherent to biblical teaching. The courts must struggle with whether the defendant understood right from wrong, despite the delusion that God had commanded the violent act.
Experts in psychotic illness bring perspective to these controversies. The woman in this story is psychotic and her devotion to religion provided the theme for the expression of her psychosis, but religion did not cause her mental illness.
There’s no telling for sure how long this deadly delusion had been incubating in this mother of three. None of her friends and family knew it was there, nor would they have expected any behavior out of the ordinary from her. At 38, she was a loving mother and wife, deeply religious and continually striving towards a perfect Christian life, devoting her day to homeschooling her children, caring for the needs of her family, and keeping an immaculately clean home.
How does such a woman come to imagine that God would ever tell her she should kill her three children? How is it possible that a sudden psychotic break can destroy an entire family? The killings were like a tornado that came out of nowhere, leaving an unbelievable path of destruction. What does the legal system do with such an unusual and controversial case? Was the outcome of her trial a travesty of justice or a modern, well-informed judgment? Few legal “exceptions” are more perplexing than the doctrine of divine decree.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a master of criminal psychology and the justice system, is the perfect expert to tell this story. For the first time, this astonishing case has been given a thorough, insightful, and critical analysis. Never before has there been a case quite like this, although it has some similarities to the case of Andrea Yates, whose psychotic obsession led her to drown her five children to keep them from falling into Satan’s grip. Dr. Ramsland has published more than 1,000 articles and 40 books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, The Human Predator, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, and The Mind of a Murderer. She holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, criminal justice, and philosophy, and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. Ramsland has worked with prominent criminalists, coroners, detectives, and FBI profilers. She speaks internationally about forensic psychology and serial murder, and has appeared on numerous documentaries, as well as The Today Show, 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and E! True Hollywood Story.