SANTA ANA, Calif. – A former hairdresser who claims postpartum psychosis led her to run over her infant son with the family Volvo is still insane and cannot be released from intensive, court-ordered mental health care, a jury found on Thursday.
Jurors took less than an hour to reach their unanimous decision in the rare civil proceeding involving the sanity of Sheryl Lynn Massip, 46, who remained composed as the verdict was read. The trial lasted two weeks.
Massip was convicted of murder in 1988 in the death of her 6-week-old son Michael after she placed him under the front tire of her car and ran him over on her 23rd birthday.
A judge later set aside the verdict, reduced the charge to manslaughter and found Massip not guilty by reason of insanity.
Massip, who has since remarried and now goes by the last name Smith, has never served time in prison or a state mental hospital but was instead entrusted to a mental health conditional release program.
She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, personality disorder and a hormone imbalance that causes bouts of deep depression.
She petitioned the court two years ago for "restoration of sanity," which would declare her sane in the eyes of the law and free her from court-ordered medical supervision that prevents her from moving or traveling outside the state without permission.
The district attorney's office opposed the petition, setting the stage for the unusual legal procedure.
"They all agreed she had not proven what she's required to prove and expressed grave concerns that she would not remain compliant" without supervision, prosecutor Aleta Bryant said after the verdict.
Massip's attorney, Milton Grimes, said during trial that Massip had complied with all the terms of her treatment, and her doctors believed she was ready to live on her own, without court supervision.
Massip could resubmit her petition in a year or two after establishing a better track record for attending therapy appointments and taking her medicine, Grimes said after the jury decision.
"They would have liked to see her being more regular taking her medicines. If she misses an appointment, she'd better call in and reschedule for the next day," he said. "With some consistency with that, maybe we'll have better luck next time."
Massip and her second husband, who now live in Northern California, are raising a 14-year-old daughter who testified at trial that her mother was a normal parent who helped with homework, drove her to visit friends and regularly attended two churches.
Prosecutors, however, said Massip still represents a danger to herself and others.
Bryant said Massip's testimony showed she has no insight into her condition or how to control it. She has a history of denial about her mental illnesses that caused her to stop taking medication and skip therapy sessions repeatedly, she said.
"An unexploded time bomb is a danger even if it is unexploded, and there is an unexploded time bomb at the end of that table," Bryant said in her closing argument, pointing to Massip. "History shows us what she is capable of when she goes off: A 43-day-old baby boy is dead at her hands."
Massip was hospitalized in 1992 and placed on suicide watch after cutting off her hair, according to testimony.
On the stand, Massip denied ignoring doctors' orders and said she never quit any medication without asking.