Wrong-way driver says postpartum depression caused her to kill seven

INDIANAPOLIS - Four of her children in the back seat, her foot pressed hard on the accelerator, Judy Kirby passed 16 ''Wrong Way'' signs as she drove into oncoming traffic and plowed into a minivan, killing seven people, prosecutors say.

Kirby, a 31-year-old mother of 10, including two adopted children, survived the wreck in March and was charged with seven counts of murder.

Now her lawyer plans to argue that she was suffering from postpartum depression and cannot be held responsible for her actions.

Legal experts say the Indianapolis woman, who had given birth in October, has a fight on her hands. While postpartum depression - suffered by women who have just given birth - can make some victims psychotic, persuading a jury to acquit is a different matter.

''I know there's a time after a child is born, 'What do we do with it?''' said Morgan County Prosecutor Steven P. Sonnega, whose office charged Kirby. ''But you have to look at her actions.''

No trial date has been set.

''This prosecution is a sign of the times,'' said Kirby's lawyer, David R. Hennessy. ''We've become a society that, whenever there is an inexplicable tragedy of great proportions, we have to criminalize it.''

The wreck took place on a rural highway near Martinsville on March 25. One other person survived, a 13-year-old boy in the minivan who was seriously injured. The children in Kirby's car were 5 to 12 years old.

Less than a month before the crash, Kirby was treated at a hospital for mental problems, according to court papers. But she left the hospital against medical advice three days after she got there. At the time, her doctor described her as suffering from a ''major depressive episode with postpartum onset, with psychotic features resolved.''

About 10 percent of women who give birth suffer from postpartum depression. Some experts blame it on the sudden hormonal changes that follow childbirth.

In one in 1,000 mothers, postpartum depression can go from a bad case of the lingering blues to hallucinations, paranoia and worse, said Dr. Scott Stuart, who researches the topic for the University of Iowa.

''Women have reported hearing voices telling them to kill their children,'' he said. And over the years, some have done so.

Sheryl Massip of California said it was postpartum psychosis that made her drive a Volvo over her 6-week-old son in 1987. A judge agreed, overturned her murder conviction and set her free.

Latrena Pixley of Washington, D.C., said it was postpartum depression that drove her to smother her 6-week-old daughter in 1992. She used the claim to bargain a first-degree murder charge down to second-degree. A judge sentenced her to three years' of weekends in a halfway house.

Since 1922, English women with babies who kill their children - whether the victims are babies or not - cannot be charged with murder and are not sent to prison for the crime, said Michelle Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University. More than 30 other countries have similar laws.

Kirby's lawyers will have to overcome a big obstacle, said Craig Bradley, a law professor at Indiana University.

For Kirby to walk free, jurors would have to believe she was so detached from reality she could not understand the consequences of her actions, Bradley said. ''But if she realized the (left) side the road was dangerous, that's evidence she's not cut off from reality,'' he said.

Bradley said that even if she was depressed enough to believe it was better to kill herself and her children than to go on with life, the question is whether, in the moment before the crash, she could still tell the difference between right and wrong.


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