Prosecution grills husband in wife’s drowning trial — (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

March 9, 2017 12:56 PM

By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette

Laurel Schlemmer, on trial for allegedly drowning two of her sons, is escorted to the courtroom at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Wednesday. In the hours after Laurel Schlemmer held her two young sons underwater until they stopped breathing, her husband told police that nearly a year earlier she had purposely tied up and run over the boys in the family minivan.

“’I’m a sinner,” Mark Schlemmer told detectives. “My son is dead, and I could have prevented it.’”

He told them that Luke, then 2, and Daniel, then 5, were tied with twine before being run over repeatedly.

Police ruled that April 16, 2013, incident at the home of Laurel Schlemmer’s parents in Marshall an accident.

When the boys died a year later, police ruled it a homicide.

Ms. Schlemmer, 43, is on trial this week on two counts each of criminal homicide and endangering the welfare of children, as well as one count of tampering with physical evidence before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

Ms. Schlemmer’s defense attorney, Michael Machen, has presented a mental health defense, arguing that his client, who has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and dissociation, did not have the capacity to form the intent to kill her boys. The judge can find her guilty, not guilty, guilty but mentally ill or not guilty by reason of insanity.

“We concede there is a general criminal liability here as to the charges,” Mr. Machen said.

The nonjury trial will conclude Friday with psychiatric testimony. A verdict is expected next week.

On Thursday, assistant district attorney Lisa. Pellegrini called Mr. Schlemmer as her witness.

She treated him hostilely almost from the start, as much of her examination revolved around the incident a year earlier.

“Isn’t it true she told you she tied them up with twine and ran them over repeatedly?” Ms. Pellegrini asked Mr. Schlemmer.

“I remember she told me she tied them up, but I don’t remember her saying she ran them over repeatedly,” he answered.

The boys were hospitalized for about four days — Luke with a broken jaw and ankle and liver and pancreatic injuries. Daniel had a broken left pelvis.

“Did you send her to a psychiatrist?” Ms. Pellegrini asked Mr. Schlemmer.

“I thought she needed to get medical treatment,” he answered. “I did not send her to a psychiatrist, no.”

Instead, Ms. Schlemmer was treated by a family physician. She was prescribed medication — Celexa, her husband thought — but he told detectives she sometimes didn’t take it.

At one point during his interview with investigators, Mr. Schlemmer told them he didn’t really believe in medicine, but believed in faith.

During his testimony on Thursday, he said he was “open to medicine to treat illnesses,” but also had concerns about side effects.

For several weeks after the incident with the minivan, Mr. Schlemmer said, his wife was not left alone with the children, and instead friends would stay with her during the day. But eventually she was home by herself with them again.

Five days before the drowning, Ms. Schlemmer called her husband at work and told him she was going to go to the police to turn herself in for purposely running the boys over a year earlier.

Mr. Schlemmer didn’t want her to do that, he said, so he left his job as an actuary at Highmark that day and stayed with his wife, calling off the next day, as well.

She never went to the police — and neither did he. But he was back at work on April 1, 2014, when he learned the boys were found unresponsive in the bathtub.

“You could have prevented all of this, couldn’t you?” Ms. Pellegrini asked.

The question was quickly met with objections from the defense and from the attorney representing Mr. Schlemmer.

It was sustained, and the witness did not answer.

Mr. Schlemmer, who could have faced endangering the welfare of children or obstruction charges, was not prosecuted by the district attorney’s office.

“We did not believe we could sustain our burden of proof on charges against him,” said spokesman Mike Manko.

Karl Williams, the Allegheny County chief medical examiner, also testified Thursday.

He told the court that Luke died from asphyxia due to drowning and had evidence of blunt force trauma to his head and neck and trunk, as well as bruises on his forehead, cheek, elbows, shoulder and knee, and abrasions on his chest, abdomen and fingers. Daniel, who remained on life support at the hospital for a few days, died from the consequences of a near drowning, including brain damage from a lack of oxygen, Dr. Williams said. He had bruises on his left arm and leg and an abrasion on the back of his head from blunt force trauma.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.