Insanity defense fails, Colleran to serve life in prison without parole — (Wicked Local)

SSRI Ed note: Woman in withdrawal from antidepressant suffers psychosis, smothers 2-yr-old daughter, is sentenced to life without parole.

Original article no longer available

Wicked Local

By Marcia Kozubek /

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The insanity defense did not convince a Barnstable Superior Court jury to let Erin Jean Colleran walk free. After watching a graphic videotape of the crime scene and hearing hours of impassioned testimony, the jury reached the conclusion that Colleran, 29, knew exactly what she was doing when she strangled her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Skyler Ann Morse in December 2001.

First Assistant Cape & Islands District Attorney Brian Glenny denied that the jury, mostly women, may have been a little tougher on the young Sandwich mother.

“We never would have sought an indictment if we did not think we could prove the case to any jury,” Glenny said after the guilty verdict was handed down.

Judge Regina Quinlan gave jurors the option of considering lesser charges including second-degree murder and manslaughter. The jury, made up of eight women and four men, stuck with the first-degree murder charge. Colleran was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Glenny would not speculate on how much weight jurors placed on the testimony of expert witnesses. He said jurors must have placed some stock in the testimony of Dr. Charlotte Denton, a psychiatrist from the state hospital in Taunton who evaluated Colleran after the murder.

“She testified that most likely Erin was criminally responsible for her actions,” Glenny said. “I think both doctors [including one for the defense] testified to the best of their professional abilities. In the end we proved the elements of criminal responsibility,” he said.

Dr. Martin Kelley, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense, said Colleran suffered from severe depression with psychotic features, and was not culpable.

But it was Colleran’s own statements to State Police Trooper Carol Harding that did the most damage, Glenny said. “The fact that she stopped smothering Skyler, recognized the child was still alive and continued to strangle the child, showed there was a definitive, deliberative process,” he said. “There was deliberate premeditation, thoughts and contemplation.”

Colleran smothered and strangled her daughter to death a week before Christmas in 2001. The toddler died as her father slept in the next room. Glenny said Colleran showed cruel indifference when smothering the child, an act that may have taken up to 10 minutes.

After deliberating Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, the jury rendered a guilty verdict, capping a week long trial in Barnstable Superior Court.

Before sentencing, Judge Quinlan took note of a written statement by Richard Morse, the baby’s father, which she silently read and did not comment upon.

Life in prison

Late on Friday, Colleran was taken to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham, one of only two prisons for women in the state. Justin Latini, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said because Colleran was convicted of first degree murder she is not eligible to be sent to the South Middlesex Correctional Facility, a minimum security pre-release facility.

“She will be in our maximum security prison because she’s a lifer,” Latini said. He said Colleran will join 34 other women from across the state who were imprisoned for serious crimes. The prison also houses dangerous women from various counties who are awaiting trial, Latini said.

“There is an automatic appeal for first-degree murder convictions. It is up to [Colleran] to decide what further legal action she will take,” Latini said.

All inmates are evaluated when they are admitted. Colleran will be tested to determine her educational level. The prison uses the University of Massachusetts Medical School as a vendor for mental health and medical services, Latini said. Colleran will receive physical and mental health screening. A psychiatrist will determine whether she needs individual or group therapy, Latini said.

Arguments for the defense

In summary statements, defense attorney J. Drew Segadelli argued that the state failed to prove Colleran was sane at the time of the murder.

Segadelli told jurors Colleran’s behavior at the scene of the murder was an indicator of her mental state.

The mother, who by everybody’s word was an over-protective mother, was standing by, emotionless … a woman who could cry at the drop of a hat, but this time there was nothing,” Segadelli said. He warned jurors that Glenny would show them graphic photos of the deceased little girl’s injuries. “They are tough to look at, but that is not the issue,” Segadelli said. “The issue is whether she understood the wrongfulness of her actions and that they did not meet the requirements of law,” he said.

“You may look at these pictures and you may well up,” he told the mostly female jury. The murder was not a crime of hatred or rage. It was not planned. This is a loving mother who is deeply troubled,” he said. “For premeditation there has to be a period of cool reflection,” he said. On the day of the murder Colleran was in the throes of depression “until, under medication, she could get her spirit back,” he said.

Segadelli denied Colleran relished media attention. “She is not interested in becoming a TV star. This is the introvert. The shy little girl from Sandwich who had good grades and then became aloof,” he said.

A mothe
r’s testimony

The characterization of Colleran as an introvert reflected statements by Colleran’s mother, Carolyn, who testified Wednesday. She described how she and Erin’s father, James, raised three children in the home on Meredith Road in Forestdale. They shared the same house for 27 years.

Carolyn said her daughter was extremely shy, but she had some friends at Sandwich High School and graduated with them in 1992. “She always thought people were looking at her. I told her that she was a pretty girl,” she said.

As a former Sunday school teacher, Carolyn Colleran said she did not approve of Erin’s decision to move in with a boyfriend at age 17. “She would come home. She said she wanted to break up with her boyfriend. She was afraid he would kill her,” she testified.

After the breakup, Erin started seeing Richard Morse and moved in with him. When the baby came, Carolyn cared for Skyler so that Erin could work at a local clothing store. Morse worked as a mason in the summer and did snow plowing in the winter, she said.

Colleran knew she had a chronic problem with depression. She made a pivotal decision in choosing to stop her medication. After that, her mood became very quiet, her mother said. “I would talk to her but she didn’t really talk to me. In December I looked at her feet and she had sandals on. There was snow outside and she wanted to take a walk,” Carolyn said. “I thought there was something wrong. I didn’t want to interfere.”

When asked if there was any clue that Erin would hurt someone, Carolyn responded, “No.”

The defense presents a medical witness

Kelley, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, has testified a dozen times for the DA’s office. In this case he testified for the defense.

Kelley said on Dec. 18, 2001 Colleran lacked substantial mental capacity to conform to the requirements of law because of a mental disease, psychotic depression.

“She had severe depression and was practically dragged to counseling by her mother,” Kelley said. “Her family may not have realized the seriousness of her depression because of her personality, because she was shy. She was very, very devoted to her child. The action was characteristic of psychotic depression in women who take the lives of beloved children,” he said.

Kelley testified that Colleran dropped into a deep depression in 1997 after ending a five-year relationship with a former boyfriend who had been abusive. She started taking anti-depressants that lifted her mood to the point where she was high.

“Her mother described her as a prancing pony,” Kelley said. She called out the window to her parents when they drove up the driveway. Something she would not have done in the past, Kelley said. “She became more outgoing, wearing more makeup and flirtatious clothing.” It was during that period that Colleran took off for New Hampshire with a stranger that she met at a rock concert.

After returning home she started dating Richard Morse, the baby’s father, and the couple soon lived together on Town Neck. She became pregnant in 1998.

Prior to the murder, Kelley said Colleran had been thin and gaunt. She had not slept much in two weeks. For unknown reasons, she went off her medication.

Segadelli rejected conflicting testimony by Denton, who testified for the prosecution that Colleran understood the severity and consequences of her actions. Denton testified that Colleran’s physician, Dr. John Angus, had seen Colleran the day before the murder. “There was nothing that he could note that was out of the ordinary,” Denton said.

Segadelli questioned Denton’s motives in testifying. “Who is paying her? Why is her integrity not questioned?” Segadelli asked. He said it is well known in the field of psychiatry that depressed mothers sometimes kill their children.

The prosecution’s case

Glenny painted a different picture of Colleran’s state of mind on the day of the murder.

“This is a clear case of first-degree murder for two reasons. First, there was deliberate premeditation and second, extreme cruelty. Was Erin Colleran some sort of automaton who was stripped of reason? She called 911. Is that a person who is not in touch with reality? Is there some sort of right way that a mother is supposed to act after she killed her daughter?” he asked.

If Colleran was so disoriented, how did she have the presence of mind to restrain the dog when officer Simpson tried to revive the child, he asked. “She could remember what happened when she made statements to police. Is that a person out of touch with reality?”

Glenny said it was appropriate for police to question Colleran about her sobriety and any previous drug use. Colleran admitted to doctors that she had used amphetamines and marijuana a few years ago. The question helped police determine her lucidity at the time of the crime, Glenny said. Colleran was advised of her rights during her arrest and said she understood them, he added.

As for premeditation, Glenny said it does not require months, days, or weeks of planning. “It could be moments, as long as there is time for reflection. She wanted to stop the baby from crying in order not to wake Ricky Morse, who was asleep in the next room. That is a deliberate act, ladies and gentlemen. After seeing that Skyler Morse was still alive, she decided, in her own words, ‘to finish it.’ She understands that she could have stopped and she decided what the consequences of stopping would be. And then she wrapped her hands around her neck,” Glenny told the jury. “How can you push a baby’s face deeper into the couch and be indifferent to the suffering?”

On Thursday, Glenny attempted to discredit Kelley’s testimony by pointing out discrepancies. “Dr. Kelley said he interviewed Colleran extensively. Apparently extensively meant for an hour,” Glenny said. Kelley testified that he spoke with Colleran on two occasions, on Dec. 31, 2001, and again on Sept. 23, 2002 at the psychiatric hospital in Taunton. Kelley said he had formed an opinion of Colleran’s condition before the second interview. “She has a bipolar disorder in all likelihood,” Kelley said.

Colleran was aware of her actions, Glenny said. “The commonwealth does not have to prove why she did it. We do have to prove she was criminally responsible at the time that she did it,” he told jurors.