Insanity ruling isn't escape hatch

Last week's hearing for an Augusta woman who stabbed her two children to death might be the first of many in her future.

Though some people believe mentally ill defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity spend little time in mental institutions, that isn't true, said Elena Carmen Nichita, who sees patients and teaches forensic psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia.

Jeanette M. Hawes, 24, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a January bench trial. Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet must review her mental health reports each year to determine whether she can be released. Last week, he determined she wasn't ready.

Ms. Hawes stabbed 3-year-old Shakayla Hawes and 1-year-old Jordan Hawes to death in a convenience store restroom Nov. 29, 2007.

Two doctors who examined Ms. Hawes found that she was insane at the time of the killings. That is usually true of mothers who kill their children, Dr. Nichita said.

In the past 25 years, 61 percent of U.S. child homicide victims were killed by their parents, Dr. Nichita said. The United States also has the highest rate of filicide -- the killing of a child by a parent -- of all developed nations, she said.

"Nobody knows why," she said.

A finding of not guilty by reason of insanity is rare, Dr. Nichita said. Only about 1 percent of all felony defendants present an insanity defense, and only 25 percent of those are successful, she said.

One of the more recent high-profile cases involved Andrea Yates. In 2006, the Houston wife and mother was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2001 bathtub drownings of her five young children. She was originally convicted of murder, but the case was overturned on appeal because of erroneous testimony.

Her attorneys claimed she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and, in a delusional state, believed Satan was inside her and that she was trying to save the children from hell.

The 42-year-old was committed to a state mental hospital, with periodic hearings before a judge to determine whether she should be released.

Since 1982, an estimated 98 people have been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, which covers Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

In March, a judge conducting an annual review granted the prosecutor's request to continue William James Elam's hospitalization. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a January 1983 bench trial on a burglary charge, the district attorney's records show.

Dr. Nichita said she recently saw a committed patient who has been hospitalized for 25 years.

James Utley, hospitalized since July 1985, fatally stabbed his stepfather, Melvin Rainey Jr. Mr. Utley suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

The doctors who examined Ms. Hawes believe she suffered a psychotic break, possibly because of the onset of schizophrenia.

Ms. Hawes told the judge last week that she feels much better and is consistently taking her prescribed medication.

She is committed to the state psychiatric hospital in Savannah.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.