(PATTERSON, Calif.) — A California mother accused of drowning her 3-year-old daughter walked away a free woman this past week after she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and a judge deemed her fit to reenter society.
After three years of treatment and incarceration, Jennifer Lynn Bigham will begin the process of reintegrating herself back into everyday life.
Judging from past cases, however, the general public might have trouble accepting her, according to experts.
“I don’t think attitudes have shifted much,” said Dr. Phil Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland. “The public is still extremely skeptical of mental illness. Even when people are recognized to be severely mentally ill, many public attitudes are, ‘I don’t care what they did. They should be punished.'”
Bigham was found not guilty of murder and child abuse by reason of insanity on Jan. 22 after her daughter was drowned in a bathtub inside a relative’s home on Jan. 14, 2010, in Patterson, Calif.
The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office is determining whether to appeal the judge’s ruling to release Bigham, questioning whether he based it upon the proper standard.
“We think he used the wrong standard,” said Carol Shipley, assistant district attorney for Stanislaus County. “It wasn’t just [that] she was restored to sanity.”
She added that the judge also should have considered the question: “Would this community be safe if she were released?”
An attorney for Bigham did not return a call for comment.
Bigham was held at the Stanislaus County Jail and treated at a local hospital. Two doctors testified that Bigham no longer exhibited the symptoms that led to the psychotic breakdown, the Modesto Bee reported.
“People found insane beat the rap, but in reality they may lose their freedom for a longer time,” Resnick said.
Resnick testified for the defense during both trials for Andrea Yates, who confessed to killing her five children by drowning them one-by-one in the bathroom of her Houston home in 2001. Yates was acquitted in 2006 after jurors found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was admitted to Kerrville State Hospital in Texas but applied for a two-hour weekly pass to attend church services at an undisclosed location — a move her lawyer thought would aid her eventual release.
While the public may worry about repeat acts of violence, Resnick said suicide is the greater risk.
“There are the very occasional reports, like one in a decade, a woman may marry a second time, have children and harm her children again,” he said. “It’s extremely rare. They’re much more of a risk to themselves than they are to society.”
Dr. Stephen Montgomery, a forensic psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said people found not guilty by reason of insanity and released from psychiatric care need close monitoring to protect themselves and those around them.
“The first sign usually comes from a family member, co-worker or supervisor, and [they] call me and say something is not right,” he said. “We rely on family. Many times, when a person becomes psychotic they don’t have insight that they’re getting sick again.”
While society may be skeptical, Montgomery said, people released from prison with no major mental illness are a greater threat.
“Those are the kind of people that are going to be at risk with future violence,” he said, “as opposed to those people found not guilty … by reason of insanity.”
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