Citing postpartum illness, woman says she wasn’t responsible for her actions
woman who killed her children seeks clemency | Local News | nwitimes.com
DWIGHT, Ill. — Debra Gindorf was trying to kill herself, but as she sat at the kitchen table downing liquor and sleeping pills and writing goodbye letters to her two children, the babies woke up crying.
She was afraid for their future without her, she said, so she decided to take them with her.
The 20-year-old mother spiked their formula and juice with fatal doses of sleeping pills, swallowed the rest of the crushed pills herself and then crawled in her daughter’s bed to die. The next morning, Gindorf awoke in a room with the bodies of 23-month-old Christina and 3-month-old Jason.
Now, 18 years after she was sentenced to life in prison for their murders, Gindorf is asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich to set her free.
She says she wasn’t responsible for her actions because she suffered from postpartum psychosis following Jason’s birth. She heard voices, she couldn’t sleep, she just wanted to escape the pain.
“There really was no concern that what I was doing was wrong or anything like that. It was just all about us leaving,” Gindorf said in a prison interview with The Associated Press.
Gindorf has supporters in her request for clemency, including Ronald Baron, the psychiatrist who testified for the state at her trial. The state’s attorney supports granting her some kind of relief. And a group of about 20 people has formed the “Committee to Free Debra Gindorf” after hearing about her case. No individuals or groups have publicly campaigned against her request.
The governor’s spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch would only say that Blagojevich has received Gindorf’s petition and that “it is in his hands to review.” There is no deadline.
Blagojevich has twice declared May “postpartum depression month,” and his proclamation acknowledges the postpartum psychosis that some women can suffer. Gindorf hopes that signals the governor’s sympathy toward her case.
During her bench trial, Gindorf was found guilty but mentally ill, but psychiatric witnesses could not agree on what was wrong with her.
Now, according to Gindorf’s clemency petition, at least nine doctors have concluded she was suffering from postpartum depression or psychosis when she killed her children. The disorder, although temporary, can cause impaired judgment, hallucinations and irrational behavior.
Violence by women suffering from postpartum illness is rare but it does happen, said Laurence Kruckman, a medical anthropologist at Indiana University in Pennsylvania and past president of the advocacy group Postpartum Support International. He estimated that at least 200 U.S. infants are killed each year and even more new mothers commit suicide.
At least four Chicago-area women suffering postpartum depression killed themselves in the last three years, including Andrea Campanari of Evanston, who slit her wrists in the bathroom of a bagel shop a week after having a son. The 2001 Texas case of Andrea Yates, who was fighting postpartum depression when she drowned her five children in a bathtub, has drawn national attention to the illness.
But the disorder wasn’t on the radar of some psychiatrists who testified at Gindorf’s 1985 trial. It wasn’t until 1994 that postpartum psychosis was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which documents mental health problems.
Gindorf said her depression started shortly after Christina was born, but she thought it was because her husband abused her.
“You don’t have no thought that a baby is going to cause you to go looney bin,” she said.
They divorced after she became pregnant with Jason. She moved to a small apartment in Zion, where she was living off welfare and had little contact with family. Her depression grew, but she said a doctor told her it would get better.
Then Jason was born, and she said she started hearing voices and having crying spells.
“All the things that are derogatory and negative that a person could ever say to somebody were going through my head,” Gindorf said. “I was suicidal and I wanted to die — I wanted the pain to stop.”
On March 29, 1985, as she drank the mixture of Southern Comfort and sleeping pills, Gindorf wrote letters to her children, telling Christina: “Mommy was very depressed and unhappy woman, which I put myself in that position, not you! Mommy wanted you and loved you very much.”
She waited for the drugs to kick in and began to worry about what would happen to the children. When her son woke up crying and her daughter followed, she decided they would all die together.
But Gindorf survived after throwing up the pills and booze as she slept. She said that after she awoke, she tried to kill herself with knives, natural gas and even suffocation but eventually turned herself in to police.
At her trial, the prosecution’s psychiatric witness, Baron, concluded that she suffered from an extreme mental disturbance. He now believes Gindorf had postpartum psychosis and even wrote to former Gov. George Ryan that her sentence was a “miscarriage of justice and needed to be corrected.”
Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said mandatory sentencing laws required a life sentence for Gindorf, but her mental condition is a reason he supports some form of clemency for her now.
Gindorf’s clemency petitions have been rejected three times since 1989, and she acknowledges Blagojevich faces a tough decision.
“What I would like to see out of him is that he stands up and speaks on it and can differentiate the difference between a babykiller and me,” she said.
She told her story without shedding a tear and said she hasn’t looked at photos of her children since the funeral. She doesn’t want to forget what happened, Gindorf said, but she wants to start a new life.
To honor her children, she said, she could educate people about postpartum illness.
“There’s nothing I can do for them except for what I can do in the future,” she said.