O thou abomination! thou most detested woman, both by the Gods and by me, and by all the race of man; who hast dared to plunge the sword in thine own children, thou who bore them, and hast destroyed me childless.
~”Medea” by Euripides
Although the disorder of postpartum psychosis was first identified in the mid-19th century, it probably first came to the attention of the American public when Andrea Yates was charged with murdering her five children.
Because of hormonal changes that occur after childbirth, mothers frequently experience negative physical and emotional effects after delivery. Most women who suffer these effects only experience what is known colloquially as “the Baby Blues.” In some cases, the mother will suffer from a more serious malady termed “postpartum depression.” Statistics show that the Baby Blues affect 80 percent of women after childbirth. About 20 percent of those women go on to be diagnosed (or suffer without diagnosis) with postpartum depression.
Even more rare is postpartum psychosis, which affects between 1 and 3 percent of women with postpartum depression. For those following the math, that’s about 5 out of every 1,000 births.
As the name implies, postpartum psychosis results in women suffering “a break from reality” and often becoming delusional. Tragically, postpartum psychosis has a 5 percent suicide rate and a 4 percent infanticide rate. Some experts believe that some Sudden Infant Death Syndrome deaths are actually homicides as result of extreme postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis.
While Andrea Yates was clearly delusional when she drowned her children, her case demonstrates the difficulty the defense has in presenting an insanity defense where infanticide or child homicide are concerned.
“While the crime itself was morally disturbing, almost as shocking was how a woman, so clearly mentally unstable, could fail to assert the insanity defense,” writes Carrie Quinlan in the Buffalo Women’s Law Journal (2003). “Although experts on both sides of the Yates trial thought it was clear that Andrea was ‘profoundly mentally ill,’ the jury could not find her innocent because she did not meet the strict limitations of the insanity defense.”
This background is necessary to understand the bizarre and tragic case of Paula J. Sims of Alton, Illinois. The state’s highest court succinctly summed up Sims’s case in a decision upholding her murder conviction: “Paula J. Sims gave birth to three children, but she was a mother to only one, wrote Illinois Supreme Court Justice Clyde Kuehn in 2001. “Rather than nurture her two baby girls, she killed them.”
It was not until Sims had been in prison for nearly 10 years that she made the claim that she had been suffering from postpartum psychosis when she killed her two daughters. She appealed her conviction because her attorney never raised the question of her sanity during her trial. However, her attorney did not attempt any affirmative defense because at the time Sims refused to take any responsibility for the deaths.
(In a postconviction hearing, the trial attorney) addressed his decision not to employ an insanity defense as follows. He studied (a public defender’s) materials and suggestions, had an associate conduct independent research into the use of postpartum-depression insanity defenses, and discussed the possibility of an insanity plea with Paula before electing to discard it. An insanity plea would have detracted from Paula’s claimed innocence. Moreover, Paula had never complained of depression-like symptoms, and an examination of her medical records proved consistent with this lack of complaint. Given the absence of testimony to support a postpartum-depression defense, the better defense was Paula’s claimed innocence, a claim made stronger by avoiding inconsistency. State of Illinois v. Sims 2001.
The facts of the case, however, made Sims’s claims of innocence very hard to believe. She was charged with the murder of her six-week-old daughter Heather in April 1989. The facts surrounding the death of Heather were so similar those in the death of her infant daughter Loralei in June 1986 that the trial judge allowed the State to present the evidence surrounding the death of Loralei in order to show Sims’s modus operandi, common intent and knowledge in the death of Heather. This is an advantage given to the state only in the rarest of situations as it requires the defense to rebut accusations in two deaths, while only being charged with one.
The Death of Loralei — June 1986
On June 17, 1986, police were summoned to the Sims house after a report of a child abduction. Paula Sims was alone in the house watching television in the basement while Loralei slept nearby in a bassinet — her husband Robert was at work.
When police arrived, she told them that at about 10:20 p.m., a masked gunman appeared on the basement stairs of the Sims home. She described the man as wearing a dark ski mask, dark T-shirt and dark pants. Despite the fact that the screen door by which indication showed the “gunman” entered was locked and squeaked loudly when opened and closed, the family dog failed to bark or otherwise alert Sims. A slice in the screen was found by investigators.
When the gunman left and Sims heard the squeak of the door, she jumped up and ran after the him. Once outside, she saw a “shadowy figure” running down the driveway to the south, and she heard what she thought was someone running on gravel. She yelled and chased after him. The neighbors who lived at the end of the Sims’s driveway, did not hear her, even though it was a hot summer evening and their windows were open.
The cops brought three trained tracking dogs who had an exceptional record of success in locating strange scents. The dogs did not pick up any strange scents around the driveway or the road. The next morning the police brought other dogs to search, again without success.
During the June 18 search, police wanted Sims to go to the station to give a statement, but she protested that she did not want to leave the house. According to a lieutenant from the State Police, Paula Sims said: “No, no, I want to be here when they bring her body up.” She then stuttered and said: “That is not what I mean. I mean my baby is alive and I want to be here when they bring her on the porch.”
Loralei’s nude body was found on June 24, 1986, about 100 feet north of the rear of the Sims’s house near the top of a ravine in a heavily wooded area with dense underbrush. It appeared from the evidence that someone had thrown the body of Loralei off the top of the ravine after coming through the Sims’s backyard.
Police reenactments revealed that it was impossible for the kidnapper to have run north to the back of the house, dispose of the body of Loralei, and return south past the house and be 75 feet down the gravel driveway by the time Sims came up from the basement and saw and heard the “shadowy figure.”
“The argument espoused by defendant, that the abductor returned to her home sometime after June 17, while the police were investigating Loralei’s disappearance, and, in 100-degree weather, climbed a steep ravine in a woods thick with underbrush to place the child near the top of the ravine, belied logic and reason,” the Illinois Court of Appeals wrote in 1993.
A decade before Loralei was killed, Sims told a co-worker that she did not want children, “especially not a little girl. It’s too much trouble.” After Loralei was born, Sims’s roommate in the hospital heard her crying and apologizing, while talking on the telephone to her husband, for having a baby girl. Robert Sims admitted that his wife had apologized for having a girl, but Paula denied making such apology. It should be pointed out in the species Homo sapiens, it is exclusively the male who determines the sex of offspring.
Despite the inconsistencies in her story and the circumstantial evidence that she was lying — and thus probably responsible for her daughter’s death — the investigation never resulted in charges against either Paula or Robert Sims.
The Death of Heather — April 1989
On April 29, 1989, Paula Sims called police to report that she had been attacked and her daughter, Heather, was kidnapped. Her story to police was that she was at home alone with her 14-month-old son, Randall, and her six-week-old daughter, Heather. Her husband was at work. Heather was in a bassinet downstairs and Randall was asleep upstairs.
At approximately 10:30 p.m. that evening, she was taking the garbage out, and when she reached the bottom of the porch stairs, she saw a person 10 feet away pointing a gun at her. This person ordered her back into the house. As she stepped inside her kitchen door, she was hit on the back of the head, rendering her unconscious. According to Paula and Robert, she did not regain consciousness until he woke her about 45 minutes later.
Again, police brought in tracking dogs, who failed to pick up any unusual scents.
At the hospital, Paula failed to present any symptoms that a person who had been knocked unconscious for 45 minutes would exhibit. There were no bruises or marks on her head and she was more coherent than physicians would have expected.
Nine months later, when she testified at her trial, she surprised the courtroom by claiming the intruder of April 1989 was the same person who had broken into her home in 1986. She knew that the assailant was the same person by his voice. She also stated that he was definitely a white male.
This was odd, considering the family lived in two different locations at the times of the abductions, had an unlisted telephone number on both occasions, and Robert worked swing shifts both times so that it would have been difficult for anyone outside of the plant to know when he was going to be at work.
The day after Heather was kidnapped, Robert and Paula Sims had a sexual encounter that she described as “the best and longest-lasting sex we ever had.”
On the stand during her trial, Robert, who backed his wife’s story, was asked about this. “Let me tell you something,” Robert Sims replied, “sex can be a stress reliever.”
On May 3, 1989, Heather’s naked body was found in a plastic trash bag in a trash barrel at a riverside park area in Missouri. This park area was a drive of less than six minutes from the Sims home. Witnesses’ testimony at her trial revealed that the trash bag was not in the trash barrel at 10:30 a.m., but that the bag was present in the trash barrel at 1 p.m.
Pathologist Dr. Mary Case performed the autopsy on Heather. It was her opinion that Heather had died by suffocation caused most likely by placing a hand across her mouth. The doctor determined that Heather must have been frozen after she died, and that her death must have occurred three or four days earlier, based upon the internal decomposition, the lack of external decomposition, and the bright red colors on the forehead, cheek, and neck, and from the loss of rigor mortis.
Through forensic testing, police traced the trash bag in which Heather’s body was found to a roll of trash bags still in Sims’s home. According to her theory presented at trial, the alleged kidnapper removed only Heather and a trash bag from her home and did not touch or disturb anything else. The supposition is that the intruder then smothered Heather, removed her clothes, put her into the trash bag obtained from the Sims home, stored her body in a freezer, and dumped her into a barrel in Missouri four days later.
Paula Sims’s parents just happened to be away on a trip when Heather disappeared and according to a relative, their freezer was nearly empty at the time.
Paula Sims was convicted of Heather’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. She later pleaded guilty of concealing the homicidal death of Loralei. Robert Sims was never charged with any crime in this case, but the prosecutor’s theory — later expanded in a book he co-wrote on the murders — was that the husband’s dark moods and dislike of girls drove his wife to murder their two daughters, while sparing the son born in between.
“I felt and still feel that Robert Sims was very much involved in the killings,” Don W. Weber said.
After she was incarcerated, Paula began to consult with prison medical officials about postpartum psychosis. This was new. She had never complained of any postpartum emotional problems until she was convicted.
A psychologist testified at her post-conviction hearing that Sims fit the mold of a postpartum baby killer, down to delusions that a stranger committed the crime. The shrink gave two psychological tests to Sims in 1992, asking her to answer as though it were still 1989.
“She perceived herself as hearing voices, people getting into her head,” the psychologist told the court.
The judge asked her whether lying is common with women suffering from the malady.
“Very often, because they have disordered thinking, they make up stories about other people coming in and taking the children, harming the children,” the doctor testified.
Edward Loew, a psychologist at the Dwight Correctional Center, where Sims is held, said she told him of hearing voices and claimed to have tried to kill herself with alcohol and pills before her arrest in 1989. Loew said Sims told him she had felt violence toward Randy too and once nearly attacked the child.
“She realized her anger was going to overcome her, but she left the room,” he said.
An emotionless Sims testified for almost 90 minutes about her girls’ deaths.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she said. “It’s not a natural thing for a mother to do that.”
Gene Petersen, another psychologist at the prison testified that she was suffering “major depression” when she arrived there and might not have realized it.
Three courts, however, found Sims’s arguments unpersuasive.