Court faces tough issue with Escondido mother’s case Woman has history of postpartum illness — (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Alex Roth STAFF WRITER  

DATE: October 21, 2006

Six years before she was accused of trying to harm her children, Kristen Lawson, whose husband is the pastor of a small Lutheran church on the edge of town, told family and friends she needed help.

She’d just given birth to her first child and she was horribly depressed. She consulted a family pastor, sought medical treatment and the feelings eventually passed, said Darci Marzinske of St. Clair, Minn., one of her best friends. A year later Lawson’s second child was born and the harrowing sense of anguish repeated.
Once again, Lawson eventually returned to her normal self: a happy, loving mother with a playful sense of humor, the kind of person who liked to have her son and daughter sing to her friends over the phone.
Lawson, now 30, gave birth to her third child, a girl, five months ago. When news spread among Lawson’s friends that she’d been arrested on suspicion of trying to kill both daughters, everyone assumed, without being told, that she had been struck low by another postpartum episode. There was simply no other explanation for why Lawsonwhom one friend calls “the epitome of what a mom should be” reportedly tried to drown the girls in a bathtub. “She is the world’s greatest mother,” said her husband, the Rev. Robert Lawson Jr., who was at a church conference in Minnesota with the couple’s 5-year-old son at the time of the incident. “Anybody who knows her or sees her with the kids will tell you the same thing.”
Today, Kristen Lawson,who posted $250,000 bail Wednesday after being held in jail for two weeks, awaits a preliminary hearing in a case that presents a thorny issue for the criminal-justice system: To what extent should a woman be punished for trying to hurt her children if it is determined that she is in the grip of postpartum mental illness? It is an issue that has received increased attention in the years since Andrea Yates, a Houston mother, drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates’ lawyers said she killed the children during a psychotic episode brought on by postpartum mental illness. Yates was convicted of murder, but the verdict was overturned, and earlier this year a second jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a mental hospital, where she will be held until she is no longer deemed a threat.
Even the police say postpartum depression or some sort of mental collapseappears to be the culprit for Lawson’s behavior. “I can tell you that we think it played a role,” Escondido police Lt. David Mankin said, adding that his belief was based on “statements from her as well as medications she’d been taking.” An estimated half to four-fifths of all women experience sadness and mood swings in the weeks after childbirth, experts say.
A smaller percentage experience something more sinistera mood change that rises to the level of a mental illness, increasing the chances that the mother will kill herself or, in extremely rare cases, her children. The most common form of this mental illness is postpartum depression, which affects 10 percent to 20 percent of women, causing feelings ranging from paralyzing melancholy to horrible anxiety and obsessive behavior, experts say. A less common and more dangerous condition, postpartum psychosis, afflicts one or two of every 1,000 women. It can cause a mother to lose touch with reality, sometimes experiencing paranoid delusions or hearing voices telling her to kill her children.”It is very uncommon, but (when it occurs) it is an absolute emergency,” said Dr. Catherine Birndorf, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University’s medical school, who specializes in postpartum mental illness.Details unknownMany details about what happened at the Lawsons’ home on the morning of Oct. 5 haven’t been made public yet.
The couple lives on Derringer Place, less than three miles from St. Paul Lutheran Church on Bear Valley Parkway, where Lawson’s husband has been the pastor since 2002.According to police, Kristen Lawson placed a 911 call at 7 a.m. reporting that her 5-month-old daughter wasn’t breathing.Police believe Lawson held the baby, as well as her 6-year-old daughter, underwater in a bathtub. Both children were breathing and in good condition when police arrived at the house.Asked recently whether he believed Lawson intended to kill the children, Lt. Mankin said: “At one point, yes, I do. She definitely contemplated it. Why she didn’t go through with it, I can’t answer that.
“Friends who heard the news were flabbergasted. The Kristen they know is a life-of-the-party type of person and a deeply religious soul. Her husband is a pastor, her father is a pastor and so are the husbands of at least five of her good friends. Until her arrest, she played organ for the congregation, taught Sunday school and routinely shuttled her kids and their friends to preschool, ballet and kung-fu practices.”Kristen is just a really wonderful, likable person,” said Pastor Steven Brockdorf of Reformation Lutheran Church in Hillsboro, Ore., where Lawson’s husband served as a vicar before being named pastor of the Escondido church. When Brockdorf and his wife heard about Lawson’s arrest, Brockdorf’s wife said, “If there’s anybody I would trust with my children, it’s Kristen.”
Lawson grew up in Nebraska and attended Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn., where she also worked in a nursing home. Her college classmates remember her always cracking jokes, gently teasing her friends about their Minnesota accents.”I don’t think anybody didn’t like her,” said Marzinske, who met Lawson in college. “She’s one of those people, if you’re going to have a party, you always invited Kristen.”It was at Bethany that she met her husband.”Kristen’s good for Rob,” Marzinske said. “She kind of brought him out of his shell a little bit.”The couple’s first child was born in Minnesota, the second in Oregon and the third in Escondido, where Robert Lawson’s church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a conservative branch of the Lutheran faith.Limited optionsLike most states, California has no specific laws immunizing women from prosecution if they commit crimes while in the throes of postpartum mental illness. One of the few options is for a defendant to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but this defense is very hard to prove.
A defendant must show, in essence, that she was so delusional she didn’t realize what she was doing or didn’t realize it was wrong. An example would be a woman who drowns her child in a bathtub but thinks she’s simply putting the baby to sleep in a crib.  For defendants who can’t prove insanity, the best approach is generally to seek mercy from the court. Such was the strategy for Lorenza Penguelly, a San Diego woman who drowned her 5-month-old daughter in 1986 by tossing the baby into San Diego Bay. Penguelly, who suffered from postpartum psychosis, was charged with murder and faced a possible life sentence but was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison instead.
In another notorious Southern California case, Sheryl Massip, an Anaheim housewife and devout Lutheran, drove a car over her 6-week-old son in 1987. A jury convicted her of murder but a judge overruled the verdict and found her not guilty by reason of insanity, declaring that Massip’s postpartum psychosis had rendered the woman “bonkers.” Massip was ordered to undergo therapy and received no prison time.
In a 2002 article for a Catholic University legal publication, author Colleen Kelly noted the “lack of nationwide uniformity” in such cases. The article contrasted the Massip case with that of Sharon Comitz of Pennsylvania, who was sentenced to 8 to 20 years for drowning her 1-month-old son in a mountain stream. Comitz, too, suffered from postpartum psychosis.”
One might as well flip a coin to predict whether the penalty for such a crime is counseling and probation, or the death penalty,” Kelly wrote.`Brave face’Kristen Lawson faces up to seven years in prison on felony child abuse and assault charges, with a preliminary hearing scheduled for next month. At the moment, she is forbidden from having any contact with her children. Deputy District Attorney Marnie Stein wouldn’t comment on the details of the case, other than to say investigators aren’t aware of any motive for why Lawson would want the children dead.
Lawson’s lawyer, William Wolfe, said he intends to have her evaluated by a mental-health professional. “She’s putting on a brave face, but she’s scared to death,” Wolfe said, adding that Lawson is “devastated that she can’t be around her children, that she can’t be around her family.” During Sunday services this week, when Lawson was still in jail, her husband delivered a sermon about Jesus to a congregation of about 30 people. He mentioned his wife only briefly, thanking the worshippers for their emotional support.
In a short telephone interview before his wife’s release, the pastor declined to say where she might live, given that she can’t have any contact with her children. He called her “the most loving, gracious, gentle person in the world.”The congregation at his church is raising money to help pay for her defense and has set up a Web site, Kristenlawson.com. “Rob and Kristen’s children are healthy, well adjusted children,” the Web site declares. “The older two love to make their five-month old sister giggle. They would love to have their mommy home soon.”

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Woman had tried to drown daughters — (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Jose Luis Jiménez, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

January 31, 2007

VISTA – An Escondido pastor’s wife was overwhelmed with taking care of two sick children by herself while battling the flu and suffering from postpartum depression, her attorney said.

A depressed  Kristen Kaye Lawson, who had run out of her medication, did the unthinkable, and tried to drown her two young daughters in a bathtub Oct. 5, said her attorney, William Wolfe.  Yesterday, Lawson pleaded guilty to child-abuse charges in Superior Court to begin the process of reconciliation with her three children, whom she has not seen for more than three months, Wolfe said in an interview.

“She had run out of medication for postpartum depression,” Wolfe said. “It caused a brief, momentary lapse in judgment that could have turned out much worse.”

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutor Marnie Stein dropped the assault charges and agreed to let Judge Daniel Goldstein determine the punishment at a hearing scheduled April 3. Goldstein’s options range from allowing Lawson, 31, to remain free on probation to a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Lawson originally was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after police said she tried to drown the girls, who were ages 5 months and 6 years at the time. Stein later filed reduced charges, explaining that the evidence did not support attempted murder.

Stein could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Lawson’s husband, Robert Lawson Jr., has been the pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church since September 2002. Kristen Lawson was home alone with the girls while her husband was traveling with their 5-year-old son.

Kristen Lawson had been diagnosed with postpartum depression after the births of her two older children, and again was receiving treatment after her second daughter was born, Wolfe said.

When the medicine ran out, Lawson called in a new prescription, but became ill along with her children and never picked up the refill.

Lawson tried to drown the girls, but changed her mind and called 911 when the baby had trouble breathing, police said. The children were not hurt and have been living with their father since Kristen Lawson’s arrest.

During her first court appearance, Lawson was ordered not to have any contact with her daughters. By pleading guilty, she is now allowed to see her children with the supervision of Child Protective Services, Wolfe said.

“She’s always accepted responsibility from the moment she called 911,” Wolfe said. “She’s getting treatment. She’s feeling better.”

Lawson remains free on bail.