It’s going to be hard to find 12 jurors that aren’t going to be sympathetic to a new mom struggling with mental health issues.
Days after Lindsay Clancy’s journey through the courts formally began, experts say the cases for and against the Duxbury mother accused of killing her children are already taking shape, paving the way for a complex legal battle ahead.
During an arraignment in Plymouth District Court Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Sprague meticulously ran through a timeline of events leading up to the evening of Jan. 24, when Clancy allegedly strangled her three young children before severely injuring herself in a suicide attempt.
Challenging defense attorney Kevin J. Reddington’s description of a woman in the throes of postpartum mental illness and overmedication, Sprague alleged that Clancy planned the attack, deliberately sending her husband out to run an errand and pick up dinner in order to buy herself time.
“It struck me a little bit like two boxers at the beginning of a match, kind of walking around the ring, sizing each other up,” observed Daniel Medwed, a criminal law professor at Northeastern University.
How are prosecutors making their case?
Noting similarities to the case against Brian Walshe, a Cohasset man recently accused of murdering his wife, legal analyst Greg Henning emphasized the details investigators gleaned from Clancy’s electronic footprint — including phone calls, texts, and Apple Maps searches.
By parsing through Clancy’s steps, the prosecution made an effort to show both mental clarity and preparation, he explained.
“What they’re doing is trying to demonstrate to the judge and later to a jury that each one of these actions … is a step of clarity and mental focus that would undercut a suggestion that she was going through some sort of psychosis,” said Henning, principal at Henning Strategies.
Yet planning and psychosis aren’t mutually exclusive, asserted criminal defense attorney Janice Bassil, who has represented clients who pursued an insanity defense after being charged with murder.
“I think prosecutors and often the experts they call upon often confuse … planning with a lack of mental illness, and that isn’t necessarily true at all,” she said, adding that mental illness can present in subtle ways.
Clinicians may also have a blind spot when it comes to diagnosing mental illness in high-functioning, middle-class individuals, Medwed suggested.
“If you’re a clinician who’s used to seeing people in various stages of distress and you see someone like Lindsay Clancy, who seems to be juggling three kids in a nice suburb … I think sometimes doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists can pooh-pooh that,” he said. “They can minimize it.”
Clancy, who previously voiced thoughts about suicide and harming her children, was initially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, Sprague said Tuesday.
In December, psychiatrists at the Women & Infants Center for Women’s Behavioral Health in Providence concluded that she didn’t have postpartum depression, and she was released from a five-day inpatient stay at McLean Hospital on Jan. 5 without any indication that she posed a danger to herself or others, according to prosecutors.
In a phone call to her husband earlier this week, Clancy allegedly said she experienced a “moment of psychosis” and heard a man’s voice “telling her to kill the kids and kill herself, because it was her last chance,” Sprague said.
“I think that a defense lawyer could really make some hay with the missed diagnosis or the absence of diagnosis,” Medwed said.
He asserted that the mental health concerns surrounding Clancy’s case make the first-degree murder charges troubling.
“For a crime to be intentional murder or premeditated murder, you have to prove as a prosecutor that the person had the conscious objective to kill and basically formed the intent to kill,” he said. “We don’t know enough, obviously, about Lindsay Clancy’s mental health condition, but we know enough so that it feels like she might not have been in a mental state to form that intent in sort of a rational, clear-eyed way.”
Mental health already seems to be a key component of Reddington’s case, with the defense attorney retaining a forensic psychologist and a toxicologist to meet with Clancy and evaluate the medications she was prescribed.
Contrary to the prosecution’s description of premeditation, “this is a situation that clearly was a product of mental illness,” Reddington told the court Tuesday.
In criminal cases, the onus is on the prosecution to prove criminal responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt — Henning likened it to the prosecution building a sandcastle and the defense aiming to kick it over.
“At this point, it’s a reasonable doubt defense where Kevin Reddington is going to argue that because of the medication, because of her mental health, she couldn’t have premeditated this; it wasn’t a deliberate decision,” Medwed said.
That’s where expert input will be critical, according to Rosanna Cavallaro, a professor of criminal law and evidence at Suffolk University Law School.
“The key thing there is what will a psychiatrist or other experts say? Because the predicate, the basis for asserting that defense, is that you are diagnosed with a mental illness,” she said. “It can’t be just, ‘Oh, in that moment I lost it.’”
Historically, the insanity defense has not been a popular one, Cavallaro said.
“Jurors are very reluctant to be put in a position where they are seeming to say that they’re letting this terrible thing go unpunished, but that’s of course not what’s happening,” she explained. “What they’re saying is this is not a circumstance that deserves punishment; it’s a circumstance that requires treatment.”
Part of a successful insanity defense is convincing a jury that the person wouldn’t have done what they did if they weren’t sick, Bassil said.
“The people who have a mental health defense like this, it’s not like they’re getting off scot-free,” she added. “They’re tortured by what they did.”
Based on the evidence available so far, Medwed said he would be surprised if the case went to trial and a jury opted to convict Clancy on first-degree murder.
“A case like this cries out for what’s called a mercy or a compromise verdict, where a jury will acquit on the top count and convict on sort of the second count, which often happens in cases where juries feel like something really went wrong, but they don’t feel like the top charge is warranted,” he explained.
“It’s going to be hard to find 12 jurors that aren’t going to be sympathetic to a new mom struggling with mental health issues,” Medwed added.