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Published: Friday, May 8, 2009 at 2:13 p.m.
THIBODAUX – Amy Hebert believed the voice that commanded her to kill her children and herself was Satan, a forensic psychiatrist testified Thursday afternoon during her capital-murder trial.
The testimony came on the first day of the defense’s case, when Hebert’s lawyers called two expert witnesses who supported their contention the Mathews mother was insane on the day she stabbed her two children to death. The prosecution argued during the first three days of the trial that the slayings were an act of revenge against Chad Hebert, her ex-husband and father of the children,
Hebert, a 42-year-old former teacher’s aide, faces a potential death sentence if a jury convicts her of two counts of first-degree murder for the Aug. 20, 2007 killings of her 9-year-old daughter Camille and 7-year-old son Braxton. She has entered dual pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
During two separate interviews last year at the Louisiana Criminal Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, Hebert told psychiatrist David Self a man’s voice commanded her to kill her children to prevent her ex-husband from taking them forever. The voice then directed the defendant to kill herself so she could join her children in heaven.
Hebert, a devout evangelical Christian who believes people who commit suicide go to hell, later regarded the voice’s instructions to kill herself as a trick, Self said.
Self told jurors the voice Hebert heard was one of several factors that led him to believe she suffered from a psychosis that made her unable to tell right from wrong the morning she stabbed both of her children more than 30 times. Among the other reasons for his conclusion, Self said, were the self-inflicted stab wounds to her eyelids, the lack of noticeable pain she showed when doctors inserted chest tubes to help her breathe and the fact that she was diagnosed as psychotic by a psychiatrist three days after the slayings.
Prior to being allowed to testify in court as an expert witness, Self, the director of the forensic psychiatry portion of Rusk State Hospital in Texas, told jurors he had testified in hundreds of cases, including capital murder trials, at the request of both the prosecution and defense. His duty as a forensic psychiatrist, he said, was objectivity and to seek the truth.
Using a persistent and at times aggressive line of questioning, District Attorney Cam Morvant II, who is prosecuting the case, employed Hebert’s medical records, crime scene evidence and a scrapbook of her high school honors in an attempt to raise doubts in jurors’ minds about Self’s testimony.
Morvant pointed out that Hebert did not mention to anyone she had heard a voice until a Sept. 11, 2007, meeting with defense psychiatrist Sarah DeLand. Prior to meeting with DeLand, Hebert had met with psychiatrists and not mentioned the voice, Morvant said.
Morvant and Self clashed on several other points, including Self’s opinion that Hebert had been severely depressed since 2002 even though no doctor diagnosed her as such until July 2005. Self based his belief on a doctor’s prescription of at least four different anti-depressants, including Paxil, between 2002 and 2005. Hebert had success taking the anti-depressant Cymbalta in 2005, so much so that she decided to stop taking it in 2006 after having a vision that she no longer needed it, Self said. Two weeks later, she relapsed. Though she wanted to get back on the drug, members of her church advised her prayer would trump the depression.
Hebert told Self she wrestled with depression as early as high school because her mother wasn’t supportive. But Morvant used one of Hebert’s scrapbooks, which contained a list of her high school accomplishments, to question how she could be so depressed when she excelled in extracurricular and classroom activities.
Morvant also raised concerns about whether Hebert told the truth in her conversations with Self.
Hebert told Self the voice dictated the content of two suicide notes she wrote to her ex-husband and his mother, Judy Hebert. She also told him she entered and then exited her bedroom once before stabbing the children and that the voice told her to stab both of the children in the brain.
Hebert told the majority of psychiatrists who interviewed her that the voice had not dictated the suicide notes, Morvant said. The defendant also told one doctor she had to exit her bedroom twice before stabbing her children, the prosecutor added. Only one of the children, Camille, had scalp wounds, despite Hebert’s recollections to the contrary.
Morvant also contested other factors Self listed as evidence Hebert was severely depressed in the year before the stabbings, such as her reported weight loss and her general unhappiness. However, the prosecutor did not challenge Self’s statement that Hebert had thought about suicide before August 2007.
Self said several times he would not change his opinion based on “picayune,” or relatively minor, details.
Hebert’s lack of continuity on certain parts of her story did not worry him, he said, because it was common for people suffering psychotic fits to forget large portions of their actions once they were no longer psychotic.
After listening to Morvant’s contentious cross-examination with his witness, defense attorney George Parnham sought to clarify the testimony for jurors.
“How do you correlate rage with the husband with eye-stabbing?” Parnham asked Self. The psychiatrist replied, “This is about something else. This is about her brain not functioning correctly.”
The defense witness that proceeded Self, medical examiner Daniel Spitz from Michigan, also testified about Hebert’s stab wounds to the eyelids, adding that such self-inflicted wounds are rare. Jurors were shown several enlarged photographs of Hebert’s deep cuts on her wrists, chest, neck and eyelids.
Spitz, who has written books in his field and serves as a media consultant for CNN and Fox News, said a millimeter difference in any of Hebert’s chest, neck and wrist wounds and she would have died almost immediately.
Though Spitz was accepted as a wound-analysis expert, Barbera granted a prosecution request to restrict him from talking about psychiatric conclusions he made after observing the injuries of Hebert, her children and the family dog, which she also stabbed to death.
Spitz told jurors the number of stab wounds for the children and dog were a “textbook case of overkill,” defined as the infliction of more wounds than are needed to cause death. Morvant asked Spitz how he knew overkill was present if he could not say when the stabbing began and when the 4-foot-1-inch Camille Hebert stopped moving. Spitz answered that based on the location of the wounds near vital organs, she could have died from any of them. Therefore, the volume of wounds represented overkill.
The trial continues today.