Sanity ruling frees mom held since daughter's drowning in Patterson

01/22/2013 11:58 AM

06/26/2013 2:29 PM

Three years after Jennifer Lynn Bigham drowned her 3-year-old daughter in a bathtub at a Patterson home, a judge ordered jail officials to release her from custody because doctors say the woman no longer is insane.

The court already had ruled that Bigham, 26, was not guilty of murder and child abuse by reason of insanity in connection with the death of her daughter, Alexandrea Bigham. At a hearing Tuesday, the judge had to decide whether the defendant should be confined in a secure medical facility.

Two doctors testified that Bigham no longer exhibits the symptoms that led to the psychotic breakdown, causing the defendant to drown her daughter. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff said the law clearly dictates that he has to order the defendant's release if she has fully recovered her sanity.

Deputy District Attorney Elaine Casillas argued that the court's standard was not stringent enough in determining Bigham's mental health status. She said the court did not ask the doctors to determine whether Bigham could be a danger to herself or others once she is released.

"She's a danger to society," Casillas said about Bigham after the hearing. "She's not been evaluated properly."

Had the doctors determined that Bigham still was suffering from mental illness, the judge could have ordered the defendant to a life-term stay at a medical facility.

The prosecutor was frustrated that the judge didn't order Bigham to seek some type of outpatient mental health treatment after her release.

Casillas told the judge the district attorney's office would file an appeal, but the prosecutor said that would not delay Bigham's release from the Stanislaus County Jail.

Bigham was released from custody Tuesday afternoon. Marlon Simon, Bigham's defense attorney, said his client declined to comment for this report.

She walked out of the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road just south of Modesto wearing a hospital gown, possibly the same clothing she was wearing when she was transferred to the jail from a hospital in 2010 after receiving treatment for superficial self-inflicted stab wounds.

After Tuesday's hearing, the defense attorney said the judge followed the law and made the only ruling required legally based on the findings from medical experts.

"This is a horrible and tragic event that occurred," Simon said about the child's death. "There are no winners or losers, in a real sense."

The drowning occurred about 5:50 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2010, at a home in the 400 block of Thrush Drive in Patterson. Bigham — then a Castro Valley resident — and her daughter were visiting relatives.

Splashing and screaming

In a hearing earlier this month, the prosecutor said that two relatives also were home at the time, a 20-year-old and a 15-year-old. They suddenly realized Bigham and her daughter were inside a locked master bedroom.

After hearing splashing and the child screaming, the relatives saw Bigham leave the bedroom and grab a steak knife from the kitchen. Bigham then stabbed herself in the chest with the knife.

The relatives found the little girl in the bathtub. Authorities tried to resuscitate Alexandrea, but the girl died at a Modesto hospital about four hours later.

Bigham's case never reached the preliminary hearing phase or a trial. The court ruled that she was not guilty based on reports from two doctors, Phil Trompetter and Jocelyn Roland, who examined the defendant and determined that she suffered from severe mental illness when she drowned her daughter.

The judge once again turned to the doctors, who were familiar with the defendant, to determine whether Bigham still was mentally ill. The doctors examined her again and submitted their findings to the court a few months ago.

Trompetter determined that Bigham suffered from an acute psychotic episode combined with severe depression. He testified Tuesday that he cannot say whether Bigham can suffer from a similar psychotic episode in the future.

The defendant, however, has not exhibited in more than two years the symptoms that led to her psychotic breakdown, Trompetter said on the witness stand. He said she still shows signs of depression that likely comes from grieving her child's death, three years of incarceration and the uncertainty of her future.

"I don't think it was the same depression" that led to the psychotic episode in 2010, Trompetter testified.

'I fear the unknown'

In the doctor's discussions with the defendant, according to the prosecutor, Bigham told Trompetter that she feared being released from custody and couldn't be sure another psychotic episode wouldn't happen again.

"You can't say it's never going to happen," Bigham told Trompetter. "To be honest, I fear the unknown."

Trompetter testified that those statements placated some of his concerns about Bigham because it indicated that she has some ability to monitor her condition once she is released.

Roland testified that Bigham has fully recovered her sanity, although she is somewhat depressed — a normal reaction to the circumstances surrounding her.

Roland said that in her discussions with Bigham, the defendant said she hopes to seek treatment for past alcohol and drug abuse and maybe find a job in medical billing, a profession in which she has some training.

Bigham told Roland she would like to move in with her mother in Oregon, but probation officials might require her to remain in California. Judge Zeff, however, made no indication that Bigham is required to serve probation.

Roland testified that Bigham still exhibits some signs of immaturity, compulsiveness and willingness to take risks, a pattern of personality behaviors that have led to problems in her past. The doctor said there is no circumstance where she can predict Bigham's behavior.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394.

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