TYLER, Texas — A psychiatrist for the prosecution testified Wednesday that a mother who crushed her sons’ skulls with rocks was suffering from delusions and did not know right from wrong.
Dr. Park Dietz said Deanna Laney believed God ordered her to kill her children last Mother’s Day weekend. “She struggled over whether to obey God or to selfishly keep her children,” Dietz testified.
Laney, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother who homeschooled her children, has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to charges of capital murder and serious injury to a child in the deaths of 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Luke and severe injury to then-14-month-old Aaron.
Dietz said that Laney, who is deeply religious, had a series of delusions on the day of the killings. He said she saw Aaron with a spear, then throwing a rock, then squeezing a frog and believed God was suggesting she should either stab, stone or strangle her children.
Laney at first resisted, but she felt she had to do what she perceived to be God’s will to prove her faith, he said.
“She told me she felt as if the Lord were saying ’If you keep rejecting, it’s going to keep getting worse,”’ Dietz said.
Although he testified for the prosecution, Dietz said Laney didn’t realize her actions were wrong, which means she was legally insane under Texas law.
Prosecutors contend that Laney did know right from wrong when she killed her children in the little town of New Chapel Hill, 100 miles southeast of Dallas. Prosecutors say other evidence suggests she was not insane, but they are not seeking the death penalty.
Two psychiatric experts for the defense, two for the prosecution and one for the judge all have said Laney was insane according to the legal definition. The defense was set to question Dietz when testimony resumed Wednesday.
Laney had delusions in which she would read everyday events or objects as messages from God. When her baby had abnormal bowel movements, for example, she thought it was a message from God that she was not properly “digesting” God’s word, Dietz said.
“To interpret what a baby leaves in his diaper reflects a mentally ill person,” Dietz said in testimony Tuesday.
Laney had at least one other psychotic experience several years earlier in which she had hallucinations of smelling sulfur she believed was God’s way of alerting her the devil was near, he said.
Also Tuesday, Laney’s husband testified that he saw no change in his wife’s mood before the attack and no clue that she was capable of killing the boys.
“I don’t understand it,” said Keith Laney, who has stood by his wife in court.
Keith Laney, 47, smiled at his wife when prosecutors asked what year they were married but briefly lost his composure at the sight of a poster-sized photograph of the three smiling boys, taken months before the killings.
The jury on Tuesday also saw a crime-scene video of 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Luke, lying dead in a yard, near garden signs that read, “Mom’s Love Grows Here” and “Thank God for Mothers.” The boys were found in their underwear with heavy rocks on their chests.
The video also showed a large spot of blood in a baby bed, where Deanna Laney severely injured the couple’s youngest son, Aaron, 14 months old at the time.
Laney lowered her head during the testimony and wept as graphic autopsy photos were shown to the jury of eight men and four women.
Dietz has worked on other high-profile cases, including those of child killers Andrea Yates and Susan Smith, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski.
In Yates’ case, the Houston mother contended that Satan ordered her to kill her five children to save them from eternal damnation. Dietz concluded that Yates must have known murder was wrong if Satan ordered her to do it. He also saw Yates’ attempts to conceal her murder plans as a sign that she knew they were wrong.
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