Iowa Supreme Court: Postpartum depression should have been presented in murder trial

Iowa woman convicted of second-degree murder in the 1998 drowning death of her infant son will have new day in court

An Iowa Supreme Court decision handed down today confirms that legal counsel for Heidi Anfinson was ineffective for not presenting evidence and investigating Anfinson’s claims of postpartum depression.

“There was ample evidence of Anfinson’s postpartum depression available to trial counsel if he had chosen to undertake the most rudimentary inquiry,” Justice Daryl L. Hecht wrote in the decision. “He chose instead to rebuff all attempts made by Anfinson’s family members and her grief counselor to educate him. He closed not only his ears, but also his eyes as he neglected to obtain medical records evidencing Anfinson’s mental state.”

The story of 15-day-old baby Jacob’s death — his body found in Saylorville Lake, 16 miles from the family’s Des Moines home — captured national attention and may have prompted other parents to seek help for postpartum depression.

In September 1998, when her husband returned home to find the infant missing, Anfinson initially said the boy was stolen. Hours later she told police that the infant had accidentally drowned when she left him unattended in a bath seat, and that she had subsequently panicked and placed his body in the lake. She led police to the place where she had placed her son in about a foot of water with two rocks on his back.

Anfinson was originally charged with first-degree murder, but, following an initial mistrial, was convicted of second-degree murder in 2000. The conviction was appealed, but upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals. At that point the court ruled that there was no authority in Iowa law for using postpartum depression as a basis for an insanity defense. Her family, including her husband, stood by her throughout the process and have claimed that postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis was the root cause of Anfinson’s actions. Her brother-in-law, Bob Krause, has written extensively about the tragic incident.

According to court documents, Bill Kutmus, Anfinson’s defense attorney, was with the family when Anfinson was released on bail. On that day a woman approached the group and offered an envelope, saying she knew about postpartum depression. Kutmus took the envelope and proclaimed he “didn’t want to hear any talk of postpartum depression.” The next day he was quoted in a newspaper, suggesting that depression was not a factor in the baby’s accidental death.

Kutmus told the court that his comments were an effort to ethically “manage” and “balance” the news in furtherance of Anfinson’s accidental death defense. He testified that he “didn’t want the public to even think of postpartum depression, because postpartum depression means you deliberately killed the baby.”

The court examined statements from Anfinson’s family that she was withdrawn in the days following Jacob’s birth. The sisters noted “sores” on Anfinson’s legs, wounds they now believe were self-inflicted. On Sept. 26, 1998, Anfinson was hospitalized and treated for depression, suicidal ideation and panic attacks. Kutmus did not request copies of her hospital records, nor did he asked for records of her prior depressed episodes in 1980 (after giving birth and placing the child for adoption) or in 1985 (following an abortion).

While the decision admits that admitting evidence of postpartum depression would have had little stake in mounting a state insanity defense, Hecht lays out three reasons why evidence of depression should have been “developed and offered” during criminal proceedings:

1. Why was Anfinson so distracted and inattentive on Sept. 20, 1998 that she left her two-week-old baby unattended in bath water?
2. Why did Anfinson behave irrationally in subsequently taking Jacob’s body to the lake, burying it under rocks, returning home and going to sleep?
3. Why was Anfinson’s affect flat and emotionless later that same day when she was questioned?

“The defense of ‘accidents happen’ chosen and presented by trial counsel was highly unlikely to result in an acquittal if the three most troublesome aspects of Anfinson’s conduct suggesting criminal culpability were left unexplained,” Hecht wrote. “Expert and lay testimony presented by Anfinson a the postconviction trial clearly suggests trial counsel could have developed strong evidence detailing the nature and extent of Anfinson’s depression and provided an explanation for her bizzare behavior on the day of Jacob’s death.”

Since receiving her sentence of 50 years with no chance of parole, Anfinson has been held at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. She could be free on bail as early as next week. A new trial date has not yet been scheduled.

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A Republican turned Democrat who is now registered with no party, Lynda is the founder of Essential Estrogen. She and her husband live in eastern Iowa with their two (mostly good) children and two (mostly good) dogs. Their oldest child was turned loose on the world in 2011 and is making her home in another state. A journalist, essayist and hobby fiction writer, Lynda's work has been seen in Salon, RH Reality Check, the Atlantic, The Iowa Independent, UK Guardian as well as other online and traditional publications. She has also appeared as a guest on various television and radio news shows.

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