A state appellate court has overturned a local judge’s ruling in the case of a woman who drowned her 3-year-old daughter in a bathtub at a Patterson home.
The 5th District Court of Appeals has ordered that Jennifer Lynn Bigham, 27, be placed in the custody of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, so she then can be transferred to a secure mental health facility to be evaluated.
The appellate court’s decision reverses a ruling from Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff, who ordered jail officials to release Bigham from custody in January 2013 because doctors said the woman no longer is insane.
The local court already had ruled that Bigham was not guilty of murder and child abuse by reason of insanity in connection with the death of her daughter, Alexandrea Bigham. The not-guilty ruling was based on reports from two doctors, Phil Trompetter and Jocelyn Roland, who examined the defendant and determined she suffered from severe mental illness when she drowned her daughter.
It’s unclear when Bigham will be ordered to appear in court or surrender to authorities. It’s also unclear where Bigham is. Marlon Simon, Bigham’s defense attorney, declined to comment Monday about the appellate ruling or discuss where his client was and when she could return to a Stanislaus County courtroom.
Bigham told Roland she would like to live with her mother in Oregon once her case concluded and she was released, according to testimony in a January 2013 hearing to determine whether the defendant should be confined in a secure medical facility.
Deputy District Attorney Elaine Casillas said Monday that it’s up to Zeff to decide when Bigham will be remanded to the sheriff’s custody. The prosecutor said a hearing to decide Bigham’s surrender date has not been scheduled.
Bigham will be sent to a secure facility, where doctors can evaluate her mental health, according to the prosecutor. Casillas said Bigham can be released only when the doctors decide she poses no public risk.
The drowning occurred about 5:50 p.m. 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.
The prosecutor said in court that two relatives also were home at the time. They 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 stabbed herself in the chest with the knife.
The relatives found the little girl in the bathtub. Authorities tried to resuscitate Alexandrea, but she died at a Modesto hospital about four hours later.
The judge again turned to Trompetter and Roland, who were familiar with the defendant, to determine whether Bigham still was mentally ill. The doctors examined her again and testified in January 2013 that Bigham no longer exhibited the symptoms that led to the psychotic breakdown, causing the defendant to drown her daughter.
Trompetter testified that he could not say whether Bigham could suffer a similar psychotic episode in the future. The defendant, however, had not exhibited in more than two years the symptoms that led to her psychotic breakdown, the psychologist said on the witness stand.
In the doctor’s discussions with the defendant, according to the prosecutor, Bigham told Trompetter she feared being released from custody and couldn’t be sure another psychotic episode wouldn’t happen.
“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 she has some ability to monitor her condition once she is released.
Roland testified that Bigham had fully recovered her sanity, though she was somewhat depressed – a normal reaction to the circumstances surrounding her.
The psychologist said that in her discussions with Bigham, the defendant said she hoped 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.
Roland testified that Bigham still exhibited some signs of immaturity, compulsiveness and willingness to take risks, a pattern of personality behaviors that led to problems in her past. The doctor said there is no circumstance where she could predict Bigham’s behavior.
Casillas has argued that the local court’s standard was not stringent enough in determining Bigham’s mental health status. She said the local court did not ask the doctors to determine whether Bigham could be a danger to herself or others once she is released.
Zeff has said in court that the law clearly dictates he has to order the defendant’s release if she has fully recovered her sanity. Had the doctors determined that Bigham still was suffering from mental illness, the judge could have ordered her to a life term at a medical facility.
The defense attorney has said Zeff followed the law and made the only ruling required legally based on the findings from medical experts.
The District Attorney’s Office filed an appeal, but that did not delay Bigham’s release from the Stanislaus County Jail. Bigham was released from custody Jan. 22, 2013.