By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
The postpartum depression debate has awakened once again in Harris County in the case of Narjes Modarresi, who is accused of killing her two-month old son. Anytime a mother harms her child deep-seated emotions are stirred in the community. Mothers are protective by nature. It’s an instinct rooted in the DNA of all animals, especially humans.
Modarresi’s attorney, George Parnham, recently informed the local media that his client was walking around “zombie-like” in the days preceding the death of little Masih Golabbakhsh.
“After the birth of the first child, she was treated at Ben Taub (General Hospital) for 36 days,” Parnham said. “By all family accounts, after the birth of the second child, she was zombie-like for two months.”
Parnham said he is still trying to gather and assess all the facts before deciding whether the present an insanity defense as he successfully did in the Andrea Yates case—a Clear Lake mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity at her second trial in 2006 and committed to a state mental hospital.
Just last year Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, introduced a bill in the Texas Legislature that would have made postpartum mental disorder a legal defense for women who kill their children within 12 months of giving birth. The Dallas Morning News reported that the bill, had it passed, would have made Texas “the first state to have an infanticide law.”
“It’s something every civilized country has on its books,” Parnham, a staunch supporter of the bill, told the Morning News. “The only thing that will change public attitude is education about postpartum issues.”
Parnham and Rep. Farrar are members of Postpartum Support International (“PSI”) founded in 1987 by Jane Honikman and headquartered in Santa Barbara, California. The purpose of the organization “is to increase awareness among public and professional communities about the emotional changes that women experience during pregnancy and postpartum.”
PSI reports that 15% of all women will experience postpartum depression following the birth of a child while 10% will suffer some form of depression or anxiety during pregnancy itself. This mental health issue affects the entire family as it has the Golabbakhsh family. This was made clear in a recent Houston Chronicle report about the case: “ … the baby’s father, Amir Golabbakhsh, and his relatives, stood silently behind Parnham as he addressed the media,” wrote Chronicle reporter Cindy George. “At times, they hung their heads and the child’s grandmother, Doris Golabbakhsh, gripped a folded handkerchief. The only person who spoke, one of the child’s uncles, stepped to the podium to simply give the correct pronunciation of Modarresi’s name.”
It is the damage postpartum-related crimes causes the families of the victim as well as the mother that prompted Andrea Yates’ former husband, Russell Yates, to speak out about the issue, urging the community to keep an “open mind” about this mental health issue. “The awareness of postpartum illness has improved,” Russell Yates told Cindy George. “I don’t think it’s such a taboo. I think Andrea’s case helped to raise awareness of postpartum illness, and I think on the whole we have a better understanding … It’s hard to blame someone for becoming ill.”
We agree. Narjes Modarresi is a living tragedy. Her life, and the lives of her family, will never be the same again. No matter what happens to Narjes, her family has been sentenced to a life term of second-guessing, grappling with the unknown of a mental illness about which very little is still known.
In most crimes, there is someone to point a finger of blame at. We can collectively feel good seeing them brought to account and made to pay for their wrongdoing. But as Russell Yates asked: how do you blame, much less punish, someone for being ill? By all accounts Narjes Modarresi is a good human being. She simply could not endure the rigors of pregnancy and fulfill the responsibilities of motherhood because she suffers from a terrible mental disorder.
Under Texas Penal Code 19.01(a), prosecutors will have to prove that Narjes intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence caused the death of her son. Section 8.01(a) of the Penal Code offers Narjes an “affirmative defense” of showing that at the time she killed her son, her conduct was the “result of severe mental disease or defect” which deprived her of the ability to know her conduct was wrong.
An insanity defense based on a postpartum disorder is difficult to establish as Columbia University’s Associate Professor of Psychiatry Margaret Spinelli, an expert on mental illness and infanticide, told the Morning News: “The insanity defense can be an extremely strict law as it is in Texas and other states. People have to fit a very specific criteria to meet it.”
The difficulty in the insanity defense was seen during several fairly recent Texas infanticide cases. Besides the Andrea Yates case, Chronicle columnist Rick Casey recently wrote about three other cases: Lisa Diaz, Deanna Laney, and Dena Schlosser. Diaz, a Plano mother of two children, killed the 3 and 5 year olds before stabbing herself. She said she thought she was saving the children from evil spirits. Laney of Tyler killed two of her sons by stoning them to death while maiming a third. She also had a religious motive: God ordered her to do it to test her faith. Schlosser, also of Plano, killed her 10-month-old son because, as she told her husband the night before, she wanted to “give her child to God.”
Casey pointed out that the psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, hired by prosecutors in both the Yates and Laney cases found Yates to be legally sane while Laney to be legally insane. As with most people, Casey found the distinction “crazy.” He added that “both these women, and apparently at least one of the others, did unspeakable things because in their demented states they thought they were beyond redemption and were afraid their children would become so.
“They were tormented in doing it and would be further tormented when they fully understood what they had done.”
That’s why the general community doesn’t truly understand the postpartum issue. This lack of understanding makes the insanity defense so difficult in such cases because the disorder is so rare. Experts like Susan Dowd Stone, chair of PSI, say that less than 1 in a thousand mothers experience “command hallucinations” to kill their children in order to save them. It has not yet been determine if Narjes Modaressi heard any such commands, but attorney Parnham says he plans to hire an Iranian psychiatrist fluent in Farsi to explore this issue. Parnham informed the media that Narjes had expressed concern that her children would “be hurt by a person of negative energy.”
This case offers District Attorney Pat Lykos a chance to address the troubling issue of infanticide brought on by postpartum psychosis. Narjes Modaressi is not a criminal, she is not a murderer. She took the life of her child because she is a deeply troubled person. The criminal justice system is not the appropriate venue in this case to resolve the interests of society, the child’s family and Narjes herself. This is an issue where a mother needs treatment, not punishment. The demons in her head which apparently forced her to commit the unspeakable act against her child have punished her enough. Our court system should now find a way to treat her psychosis. The first step in that direction begins with DA Lykos. We hope she will take it.