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Experts: Mother accused in deaths of children legally insane


NEW ORLEANS — A pair of mental health experts has found that a 25-year-old woman was legally insane when she shot her 3-year-old son and drowned her 4-year-old daughter in the bathtub of their New Orleans apartment nearly two years ago.

The New Orleans Advocate reports ( ) forensic psychiatrists Dr. Sarah Deland and Dr. James McConville said Chelsea Thornton knew she was breaking the law but thought it best to kill her children anyway.

Thornton has a lengthy history of mental illness, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, with psychotic episodes, as well as depression. Hospital records showed she had been off her medication for several months before the killings.

"She was tired of seeing her kids suffer. She felt they were poor and things were not going to get better and she didn't want them to go from pillar to post," McConville testified at a hearing Thursday. "It was almost as if she felt this was some sort of mercy killing. . She did feel that what she was doing was the right thing to do."

Both psychiatrists were hired by Thornton's defense attorney, Lionel "Lon" Burns, in a bid to support her plea of not guilty by reason of insanity to a pair of first-degree murder charges handed up in January 2013.

The doctors submitted a 34-page report to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman, detailing their findings from two separate interviews with Thornton, weeks after the killings and again on Aug. 28. They also interviewed relatives and reviewed videotapes from cameras that caught Thornton at a day care center and while she rode the bus that day.

Last year, Thornton was deemed competent to stand trial. The issue on Thursday was whether she knew right from wrong when she shot her son in the head and pushed him underwater in the bathtub, then drowned her daughter in the same tub when the gun jammed.

Thornton was despondent the day she killed them, McConville testified. She never tried to hide what she did and started to tell police but then got scared. After a trip to the hospital, she confessed to police, following the discovery of the children's bodies by a relative.

Thornton was "almost getting catatonic on that day," Deland testified. "She feared for their future and thought going to heaven was the best thing for them."

She hugged her children and told them she loved them first, McConville said, and then later tried to commit suicide.

The testimony and report have no bearing on whether District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office will move forward with its case. Ultimately it's up to a jury to decide Thornton's sanity at the time of the offense. Pittman said she couldn't rule on the issue unless Thornton waived a jury and requested a judge trial.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, Christopher Bowman, said the office still may seek the death penalty for Thornton. "It is presently a capital case," he said.

Burns, who is running to unseat Cannizzaro as district attorney, said he'll seek to have Thornton's confession thrown out at a hearing scheduled for next month. "Obviously, if she was insane at the time of the offense, she was insane at the time of the confession," he said.

Thornton remains jailed without bond.

Information from: The New Orleans Advocate,

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