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Richmond Times-Dispatch

May 17, 1998

Author: Rex Bowman, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

[]Months before Sharon Alley allegedly plunged a kitchen knife into her baby’s chest, a dark hobgoblin of despair had made a den in her mind.   Postpartum depression had darkened her thoughts, while its sister psychosis whispered violent suggestions.So her lawyer disclosed last week.Though the attorney has not signaled whether Alley, 29, of Henry County, will plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charge that she murdered baby Brooke last Sunday, various medical experts said lastweek that her mental illness may be the only answer to those in the community asking: What kind of a mother would kill her own baby?”This kind of thing happens more than people realize,” said Jane Honikman, director of Postpartum Support International in Santa Barbara, Calif. “There are many cases of women with postpartum depression committing suicide or infanticide. It’s a serious mental illness.”

Experts estimate that up to 70 percent of new mothers develop some form of depression, commonly known as the “baby blues.” In almost all cases the depression fades.

But a select group of mothers, less able to cope with the hormonal changes brought on by pregnancy, develop a more severe form of the blues, called postpartum depression. Researchers say anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent of new mothers suffer from the illness, and, occasionally, one of them kills herself or her baby.

Consider the case of Lori Baldilez, of Richardson, Texas.

When the voice in her skull told her to kill her 2-week-old son, Baldillez recalled, she knew – she absolutely knew – that shaking the boy to death was the right thing to do.  “The voice said to kill my child and everything would be OK,” she said. “It said all kinds of things like that.  “I did years in prison.”

Baldillez, now 31, was paroled several months ago from the 40-year term she received for murdering her infant son.

Though she has no qualms about having to serve time, she said she believes that Alley should not be convicted for the Mother’s Day slaying of her child.  Like Baldillez, Alley has been diagnosed with severe postpartum depression.

And also as in Baldillez’s case, Alley’s postpartum depression is one of the rare instances in which the illness is accompanied by psychosis, according to court testimony divulged by Alley’s attorney, Kimble Reynolds.

“It’s like you’re another person,” Baldillez said of the depression. “It’s definitely a real medical problem. I certainly believe she shouldn’t serve any time. She needs psychiatric care.”

Word spread quickly throughout the tiny Figsboro community last Sunday that investigators were charging Alley with first-degree murder. Alley, her hands covered in blood, had arrived at a local car dealership with her dying baby daughter in her arms. The baby had been stabbed once in the heart.

According to court records, Alley was home alone with the girl and her 9-year old son, Eric, when the baby woke up crying, some time after midnight Sunday. Alley entered the room to check on her and, soon after Eric shut the door behind her, according to the documents, the young boy saw his mother “running out of the bedroom yelling, ‘I killed her, I killed her.'”

Since then, residents in the working-class community of small homes have asked themselves and each other what would motivate a typical mother to kill a child.

According to medical experts, one answer, at least, is this: a mother suffering from postpartum depression.

“I don’t want to imply that every depressed mother is going to kill her baby, but it’s a possibility,” said Dr. Denise Fraser-Vaselakos, an Illinois psychiatrist who specializes in women’s depression.

“However,” she continued, “it’s simplistic to say postpartum depression caused someone to kill her baby. You have to look at other factors: What kind of stress was she under? What kind of help did she have at home? Did she get enough sleep? Did she have a history of depression? You have to look at everything.”

Answers to those questions won’t likely come to light until Alley’s trial, if there is one.

Meanwhile, little is known about Sharon Alley outside her immediate family and small circle of friends, and they have worked to shield her from unwanted scrutiny from neighbors, reporters and the idly curious.

Authorities have described her as a factory worker who had recently been living with her parents in Figsboro following a separation from her husband. Her father-in-law described her as “a pretty good girl” with no notable hobbies or passions except her children. She sang hymns and read the Bible regularly at the Jones Chapel Church of the Brethren in Figsboro.

But, again, court documents do shed some light on her troubled life in recent months.

According to the records, on Oct. 14, 1997, Alley and her husband, Bobby, were at home with baby Brooke, then 5 weeks old, when Mrs. Alley began hearing a voice inciting her to violence.

She had developed postpartum depression soon after giving birth, and had been taking antidepressants to help lift her mood.

“Sharon was sitting at the kitchen table with Brooke in her arms, and Mr. Alley states he was on the couch, had his eyes closed when he heard something hit the floor,” the criminal complaint reads. “He looked and Brooke was laying on the floor about eight feet from where Sharon was sitting in the kitchen. Mr. Alley states he picked up Brooke and ran to the bedroom to call his mom, and that Sharon asked him, what did I do?

“Mr. Alley took Brooke to the hospital and she had a fracture to her skull, and was admitted. Mr. Alley heard his wife say, ‘the voice told me to kill myself and the voice told me to . . .’ and she immediately made a throwing motion with her arms which indicated to him that Sharon threw Brooke.”

The Alleys separated soon afterward. He moved in with his parents in Collinsville, and she returned to her parents’ mobile home in Figsboro. She was charged with felony child abuse, and he was given custody of Brooke. (Shortly before the baby’s death, the Alleys told a judge they were reconciling, a circumstance that led to the mother gaining joint custody of Brooke.)

At one of several custody hearings, Alley’s doctor testified that she had abruptly developed postpartum depression and psychosis soon after giving birth.  She was being treated with Paxil, a drug that belongs to the same medicinal family as Prozac.

The most notable case involving postpartum depression occurred a decade ago in Orange County, Calif., where a jury convicted Sherry Massip of killing her child, only to have a judge overturn the conviction because Massip suffered from the illness. The ruling was the first to focus the nation’s attention on postpartum depression, if only for a short while.

“We have many women in prison who shouldn’t be,” said Honikman. “These are people who are having psychiatric illnesses, hearing voices. They’re extremely ill.

“But this nation is so ignorant about postpartum depression.”

It’s unclear if Reynolds, Alley’s attorney, will use the woman’s postpartum depression to have her plead not guilty by reason of insanity.  Alley is in jail on a $1 million bond, and Reynolds is not talking publicly about the case.

Fraser-Vaselakos, the Illinois psychiatrist, said an insanity plea is in order. “Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a cop-out. I think it’s a valid defense. I think she would be better served by being in some sort of counseling, not jail.”

Henry Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Bushnell said he is indifferent. A first-degree murder conviction could put Alley behind bars for life, he said; and if the court finds her not guilty by reason of insanity, she would be sent to a state mental institution, possibly for life.

“That first-degree murder charge is going to remain,” he said.

Baldillez, who killed her baby boy six years ago, said mothers who suffer from postpartum depression and kill their children are often punished enough when they come to their senses and realize they have committed one of the most horrible acts imaginable. Alley, she said, deserves psychiatric care, not imprisonment.

However, Baldillez said she never fought the charge against her. She pleaded guilty.    “For myself, I needed to serve time,” she said. “I just felt so bad about what I had done.”