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Sheriff: Texas woman says God told her to kill sons

No decision on seeking death penalty, attorney says

CNN, USA, Tuesday, May 13, 2003

TYLER, Texas (CNN) -- Whether authorities will seek the death penalty against a Texas woman accused of beating to death two of her three young sons has not been decided, according to the district attorney who will try the case.

Deanna LaJune Laney made her first brief court appearance Monday.

Texas woman accused of beating to death two of her three young sons Deanna LaJune Laney made her first brief court appearance Monday

Smith County D.A. Jack Skeen said he wants to wait until all the evidence is gathered before making that decision in the capital murder case of Deanna LaJune Laney, 38.

In Texas, a capital murder charge carries a punishment of either life in prison or death.

Laney made a brief court appearance Monday, in which a judge read aloud her rights and put her bail at $3 million, the district clerk said. Laney's court-appointed lawyer, F.R. "Buck" Files, advised her to stand silent.

Files said he was simply being cautious because his client has not yet had a mental examination -- the results of which could be key to her defense.

"We have such uncommon allegations against her that it raises, for anyone who's ever been in the system, questions of sanity and competence," he said.

Laney has been acting erratically in her jail cell, the sheriff said.

"She goes from a fetal position of crying, to walking around the cell singing gospel music. She stops and prays, then she goes into a crying hysteria," Smith County Sheriff J. B. Smith said. "She all of a sudden realizes what she's done, then she'll go into a flatline, blank stare."

Laney is under a suicide watch, according to The Associated Press.

In addition to capital murder, authorities said, a charge of aggravated assault is also pending in connection with the beating of Laney's third son, Aaron, 14 months old, who was found bloodied under a pillow in his crib early Saturday. Aaron was in critical condition Monday at Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

Smith said Laney's 8- and 6-year-old sons, who died, were "severely beaten in the head with what appeared to be a rock." He said Laney told authorities that God told her to kill her children.

Sheriff: Laney told 911 dispatcher 'I've killed my boys'

After the killings, Laney made a 911 call on her cellular phone and spoke in a "very calm, matter-of-fact way." She told a dispatcher, "I've killed my boys," Smith said.

A sheriff's department spokeswoman said deputies arrived at the New Chapel Hill home, about seven miles outside of Tyler, at 12:52 a.m. Saturday.

When officers arrived, they entered the house and found Aaron in his crib, wounded but still breathing. Laney was not there but continued to talk calmly on the phone, Smith said.

Officers found the woman, wearing bloody clothes, in a wooded area about 100 yards behind her house, the sheriff said.

Laney described where her other two children could be found but refused to go there herself, he said.

Her husband was apparently asleep inside the house during the attack because he came walking out "in his nightclothes," the sheriff said.

The recording of the 911 call is in the hands of the district attorney, who said he doesn't plan to release it publicly.

"In any case like this, the incoming 911 tape is very important," Skeen said, "because it contains the initial obvious statements of the defendant."

Smith said the Laneys were a "very stable, loving family" and that the suspect has no history of mental illness.

Similarities to Yates case

Two years ago, another Texas woman, Andrea Yates, drowned her five children while suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis. She told authorities that Satan told her to kill the children. Despite a documented history of mental illness, a jury rejected her plea of innocent by reason of insanity and convicted her of murder. Yates was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole in 40 years.

Attorneys on both sides are aware of the similarities to that case.

"Whether or not we use some of Andrea Yates in our case, I cannot tell you," Files said. "Obviously, anyone who looks at Andrea Yates and looks at this case would draw some comparisons, just at first blush."

Files said he has "no doubt" Laney can receive a fair trial in Tyler, the Smith County seat, but said media coverage of the case could pose problems.

Laney sang in the choir at the First Assembly of God Church, where her brother-in-law, Gary Bell, is the pastor, according to The Associated Press.

"This was a brutal and horrific incident that has changed our lives [and will] for years to come," Bell said during a service Sunday. "But we all believe as a family that this wasn't our Dee that did this to her children."

Neighbors, too, were at a loss to explain what went wrong.

"There's no way in the world that I would believe she would do this without something taking over her and something snapping in her," a neighbor said.

"It is absolutely devastating to the neighborhood," he said.

Copyright 2003 CNN. All rights reserved.