TYLER, Texas – A woman who claimed God ordered her to bash in the heads of her sons was acquitted of all charges by reason of insanity Saturday after a jury determined she did not know right from wrong during the killings.
A jury found that Deanna Laney (search) was legally insane May 9 when she killed her two older sons, ages 6 and 8, in the front yard and left the youngest, now 2, maimed in his crib. Laney, 39, would have received an automatic life sentence had she been convicted of capital murder.
Laney broke into tears as the verdict was read. Her husband, Keith Laney (search), sat solemnly with his head down. A few jurors cried and struggled to maintain their composure.
State law allows Laney to be committed to a maximum security state hospital. Medical evaluations will dictate when she will be released. She will remain at the Smith County Jail until a hearing regarding her transfer.
Defense attorney Tonda Curry (search) said the verdict doesn't mean Laney escaped punishment.
"Now and for the rest of her life, the punishment and torment that's going on in her own head is more significant and more damaging to her than anything the criminal justice system could have done, other than death," Curry said.
All five mental health experts consulted in the case, including two for the prosecution and one for the judge, concluded that a severe mental illness caused Laney to have psychotic delusions that rendered her incapable of knowing right from wrong during the killings — the standard in Texas for insanity.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham (search) said had no regrets about taking the case to trial.
"This is a case that the citizens of this county needed to make the decision on," he said.
Jurors deliberated about seven hours before reaching their verdict in the deaths of 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Luke, and the beating of Aaron. The baby was found bleeding in his crib while the other two were found with their skulls smashed in the front yard.
Defense attorneys argued that insanity was the only reason why a deeply religious mother who homeschooled her children would kill two of them and maim another without so much as a tear.
"There was no crying," Curry said. "She was insane. There is no other answer."
Psychiatrists testified that Laney believed she was divinely chosen by God — just as Mary was chosen to bear Christ — to kill her children as a test of faith and then serve as a witness after the world ended. In a videotape played at her trial, Laney said she saw her youngest son play with a spear, hold a rock and squeeze a frog, and took them all as signs from God that she should kill her children.
In closing arguments earlier Saturday, prosecutors portrayed the killings last Mother's Day weekend as deceptively planned and coldly executed.
"It was graphic, it was horrific and it was brutal," Bingham told the jury.
Bingham pounded his fist in his hand as he recounted Joshua's killing: "He got strike after strike after strike on his head to the point that his brains were coming out of his head like liquid."
Prosecutors said that even if Laney believed she was doing right by God, she had to have known she was doing wrong by state law. Her first call, they pointed out, was to 911 to summon authorities.
The 911 tape was among the evidence jurors reviewed during deliberations. Jurors also had asked for psychiatric testimony to resolve a disagreement over why Deanna Laney stopped beating Aaron, then 14 months old, but they reached a verdict before receiving the transcript.
Psychiatrists testified that Laney couldn't finish killing the baby, and that she told God, "You're just going to have to do the rest." Prosecutors said that action indicated Laney knew right from wrong and that if she chose to disobey God's orders by not killing Aaron, she could have disobeyed his orders to kill the other two.
Bingham said Aaron, who lives with his father, suffered permanent injuries in the attack.