PITTSBURGH (AP) — A Pennsylvania woman tried to be an “ideal Christian, loyal mother” but felt overwhelmed by her husband’s desire for more children and his religious stance that they avoid birth control before she drowned their two youngest sons in a bathtub, a psychiatrist testified in her defense Friday.
Dr. Robert Wettstein was the second and final witness called by the defense on Laurel Schlemmer’s behalf and his testimony was critical to the case. Defense lawyer Michael Machen has acknowledged the 43-year-old McCandless woman’s role in the deaths but is arguing she was mentally ill at the time.
Judge Jeffrey Manning said he would issue a verdict next week.
Schlemmer is accused of holding her sons, 6-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Luke, face down in the water while she sat on them April 1, 2014. Luke died that day; Daniel died four days later.
Wettstein and prosecution witness Dr. Bruce Wright agree that Schlemmer wasn’t psychotic — even though she was driven by the false notion that the two boys were autistic and that she could have been a better mother to their older brother, then 7, if the younger boys were “in heaven.”
But the psychiatrists disagree about the extent to which Schlemmer’s depression and anxiety disorders affected her actions.
Wright has testified that Schlemmer’s mental problems diminished her capacity to conform her conduct to the law. But he said Schlemmer “had the capacity to form the specific intent to kill and was fully conscious of it.”
In his testimony Friday, Wettstein said that Schlemmer’s ability to form the intent to kill was “significantly impaired” and “substantially diminished.” Schlemmer suffered significant dissociation, meaning she lost touch with herself and functioned as though she was disconnected from her body, the defense expert said.
Wettstein said people dissociate every day when they steer their cars on highways while they think about other things, but in Schlemmer’s case it was severe.
He said Schlemmer “became concerned that the two boys would never grow up normally,” even though a battery of tests she had put them through showed no signs of autism.
Schlemmer met her husband, Mark, on a Christian singles online dating site, and felt “pressured” to have more children, Wettstein testified. She also had three miscarriages, he said.
She considered her younger sons, especially Daniel, to be “foreign” to her and her husband and not as easy to raise as their oldest boy, he said.
Schlemmer has said she tried to kill Luke and Daniel a year earlier by tying their hands and feet with twine then backing over them with her car three times, only to later claim that was an accident, Wettstein said. Police and social workers came to the same conclusion and no charges were filed though Schlemmer told her husband days before the drownings that she wanted to confess to the earlier incident, Wettstein testified.
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini introduced evidence aimed at getting first-degree murder convictions, which would mean Schlemmer would face life in prison for each boy’s death.