MODESTO — Jennifer Lynn Bigham has told doctors she can't be certain she never again will suffer the kind of psychotic episode that led her to drown her 3-year-old daughter.
Yet doctors say she has has fully recovered her sanity after being incarcerated for three years, and she was released from jail this week.
One criminal law professor said it's rare for a court to order a release so soon after a mental breakdown. "It's really unusual to be released that early," said Michael Vitiello, a professor specializing in criminal cases at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "There must have been something particularly compelling to recover from a psychotic break."
He said it's important for the public to understand the outcome of this criminal case because many people have misconceptions about a court deciding a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity.
"From the public's perspective, they think this is a get-out-of-jail-free ticket," Vitiello said. "That is simply not the case."
He said defendants very infrequently plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and it's even more infrequent that defendants are successful after entering such a plea.
Typically, the process takes a considerable amount of time before the court determines the defendant no longer is suffering from the mental illness that led to the crime.
Bigham's case might be unusual, but Vitiello said there are mental illnesses that are treatable. If she no longer suffers from severe depression, he said, the woman should not be in jail.
Vitiello said the law is intended not to punish those who committed a crime while under a delusion. The insanity plea is designed for defendants who truly did not know what they were doing.
"For example, you think you're stabbing a tomato, instead you're stabbing someone's neck," Vitiello said.
The courts usually measure blame based on mental cognition, he said, not the heinous nature of the act. Drawing a parallel, he said a driver who was not able to avoid crashing into another vehicle would not be punished for a resulting death. "We don't put people in prison for an accidental death," Vitiello said.
Another example are the varying legal degrees of homicide, which are based on intent. First-degree murder indicates it was a premeditated act, while the less serious charge of involuntary manslaughter means there was no intent to kill.
"It sounds to me like the judge was following the law," Vitiello said about the conclusion of Bigham's case.
While the criminal court has decided to release Bigham, her family can seek a civil court remedy to ensure Bigham is not a danger to herself or others, he said.
If she ever again were to exhibit the same symptoms that led to her psychotic episode in 2010, Vitiello said, Bigham's family could ask a civil court judge to order that she be committed to a medical facility for further treatment.
Nevertheless, it is possible that someone who suffered severe depression could get better in three years, said Gary Howells, a psychology professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Two years of therapy and antidepressant medication usually is what's needed to help some recover from severe depression. He said it's possible Bigham was not taking medication before she drowned her daughter. It's likely she started taking antidepressants not long after she was booked at the jail.
"I think with medication and therapy, it can certainly help someone who was in a bad state of mind," said Howells, who teaches a law and psychology course at the university and has testified as an expert witness in court.
He said the public might be confused by the term "insanity," which is a legal term used to describe a defendant behaving in a psychotic fashion. Howells said insanity, in this case, does not necessarily indicate that Bigham was suffering from a long-term mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia, which requires lifelong treatment.
Depression is a common but serious illness, and many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies and other methods can effectively treat people with depression, according to the institute.
Major depression is characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Some people may experience only a single episode within their lifetime, but more often a person suffers multiple episodes.
One form is called a psychotic depression, which occurs when a person has severe depression plus some form of psychosis, such as having disturbing false beliefs or a break with reality or delusions, according to the institute. The person also can hear or see upsetting things that others cannot, such as a hallucination.
Howells said it's difficult for medical experts to predict how someone with mental illness will behave in the future. "We are very limited in terms of being able to predict when there's been a single incident," he said.
A pattern of psychotic episodes in someone's life, the professor said, might help authorities determine what could happen, but they can't be certain.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.
HOW TO HELP
If a loved one is depressed:
The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and accompany them to see a doctor.
Encourage them to stay in treatment or seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after six to eight weeks.
Offer emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement.
Talk to him or her and listen carefully.
Never dismiss feelings, but you should point out realities and offer hope.
Never ignore comments about suicide; report the comments to their therapist or doctor.
Invite them out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if they decline, but don't push them to take on too much too soon.
Provide assistance in getting to doctor appointments.
Remind them that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health