In a precedented ruling last month, the New Jersey appeals court determined that a woman charged with infanticide should have been granted an evidentiary hearing to determine whether her court-appointed lawyer took the right course of action in her case, family lawyers in New Jersey report. Due to the woman’s tragic history as a victim of sexual abuse, and her mental state at the time of her crimes, the appellate division judges said that a diminished capacity defense may have changed the outcome for her.
In 2005, Alice O’Donnell, 51, overdosed her 6-year-old son Philip with a combination of the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin and Benadryl, an antihistamine, which caused him to vomit, and then smothered him with a pillow. She later admitted to having done so and was found guilty of infanticide. Currently, O’Donnell is serving out her 30-year prison sentence.
After the sentencing, O’Donnell filed a motion for post-conviction relief due to her claim of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” but a trial court judge rejected this, based on the grounds that O’Donnell entered a voluntary plea of guilty, and that she did not have enough evidence to convincingly prove that her diminished capacity defense would have succeeded in a reduced or eliminated sentence. O’Donnell’s argument regarding the diminished capacity defense stems from the years of sexual abuse she suffered as a child from her father, and her lifelong struggles with depression, insomnia, and anxiety, all of which contributed to several stays in local mental hospitals, and eventually led her to take her child’s life.
According to O’Donnell, her court-appointed attorney, Assistant Deputy Public Defender H. Todd Hess, did not handle her case properly, failing to follow through on her requests to present psychiatric evaluations to prove her diminished capacity, and her mental conditions—both of which she claims made her unfit to handle parenting, and to stand trial—and to discuss the range of options available to her. O’Donnell claimed that Hess convinced her to enter a guilty plea, rather than to go to trial, and did not spend enough time looking into her case due to problems going on in his own personal life.
In considering O’Donnell’s appeal, appellate division Judges Mitchel Ostrer, Harry Carroll, and Susan Reisner determined that the woman had presented a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel and resulting prejudice. The appellate judges ruled that the O’Donnell was entitled to an evidentiary hearing regarding her claim that Hess should have used a diminished capacity defense for her, and to “fairly assess [the] defendant’s asserted reasons for seeking to withdraw her plea.” As Ostrer said in State v. O’Donnell, “the court did not expressly consider that once [the] defendant raised the question of her mental disease or defect, it was the state’s burden to disprove her diminished capacity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family lawyers represent clients charged with these types of crimes every step of the way—from initial criminal charges to appellate court if necessary. If you think that your case was mishandled, or if you need legal advice regarding family law charges you are facing, contact an attorney at HCK for a consultation today.