A state appeals court today upheld the underlying murder and assault convictions of an Oakland woman who was later found to have been insane when she threw her three young sons into the San Francisco Bay in 2005.
LaShaun Harris, 28, who had been previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, said she heard the voice of God when she took her children via BART to San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2005, and threw them one by one off Pier 7 into the bay, where they drowned.
The boys were aged 6, 2 and 1.
In the guilt phase of a trial, Harris was convicted by a San Francisco Superior Court jury in 2007 of three counts of second-degree murder and three counts of assault on a child causing death.
The next day, Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin presided over the sanity phase of the trial and found Harris not guilty by reason of insanity. She sentenced Harris to 25 years to life but ordered her committed to Napa State Hospital instead of prison.
Harris could be released from the hospital before the end of that term if she is found to have gained her sanity.
But the guilt phase convictions upheld by the Court of Appeal make a difference in the circumstances under which she could seek release.
Because the sentence was for up to life in prison, Harris would have the burden of proof of showing she is sane if she ever seeks to be set free.
“Because the appellate court affirmed the defendant’s conviction, she will remain hospitalized until she can prove she has been restored to sanity,” Assistant District Attorney Linda Allen, who was the prosecutor in the case, said.
The convictions were unanimously upheld by a three-judge panel of the appeals court in San Francisco.
The panel rejected Harris’ claims that a confession she gave to police should not have been allowed as evidence and that prosecution rebuttal testimony by two psychiatrists made her trial unfair.
“I strongly disagree with the ruling and will ask the California Supreme Court to review it,” said Harris’ lawyer in the appeal, Neoma Kenwood.
Harris told homicide inspectors in a videotaped interview that “voices in my head” told her to “give (the) kids as a living sacrifice” and to take their clothing off before she threw them into the water, according to the ruling.
She said the older sons, 6-year-old Trayshawn and 2-year-old Taronta, tried to fight back and shouted, “No, mama, no,” while Joshua, 1, tried to hold onto her and cried out “Mommy” as he went down into the water.
The videotaped confession was played at the trial.
Defense psychologist Paul Good testified at the trial that Harris told him God instructed her to take the children to the pier, undress them and throw them into the water.
The appeals panel upheld the use of the videotaped confession, saying that Harris made a voluntary and knowing decision to give up her right to have a lawyer present during the police interview.
The panel also said that while two prosecution psychiatrists should not have been allowed to interview Harris in person for their rebuttal testimony, the error didn’t make a difference in the outcome of the trial.
The two prosecution experts testified that while Harris believed her children would go to heaven, she had acted deliberately and knew that they would die if she threw them into the water.
The appeals court said the prosecution experts would have reached similar conclusions if they had reviewed only trial and medical records without interviewing Harris. In addition, the court said, their conclusion was supported by other evidence.
“The jury heard uncontested evidence – from defendant’s own statements to police and to Dr. Good – that defendant knew the children were going to drown and die when she threw them in the water, and understood they would be gone from this life,” Justice Sandra Margulies wrote.
Margulies added, “Without even considering the prosecution’s rebuttal testimony, the defense faced an uphill battle in trying to convince the jury defendant did not act in conscious disregard for the lives of her children.”
Harris had been hospitalized for mental illness five times in 2004 and 2005 and was living with her children in a Salvation Army family shelter in Oakland at the time of the drownings.
Taronta’s body was found by the Coast Guard on the San Francisco shoreline near Crissy Field on the evening of Oct. 19, 2005, but the bodies of the other two boys were never found.