This morning the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Heidi Anfinson finding that her trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to sufficiently inquire into the evidence of her postpartum depression. (http://www.iowacourts.gov/Supreme_Court/Recent_Opinions/20081017/06-0076.pdf)
The Anfinson case drew considerable media coverage and public outcry as it involved the death of Heidi Anfinson's 15 day old son who's body was found submerged under rocks in shallow water in Saylorville Lake. Anfinson contended all along that the death of her son Jacob was accidental and that she panicked when she found him submerged in bathwater and then took his body to Saylorville in an attempt to cover up the accident. The first trial resulted in a mistrial as the jury was unable to come to a unanimous verdict but the second trial resulted in a conviction for 2nd degree murder and child endangerment. It is this conviction that the Iowa Supreme Court reversed.
While the conviction was affirmed by the Iowa Court of Appeals on direct appeal, Ms. Anfinson and her family filed an Application for Post Conviction Relief which is another way by which a convicted individual can seek to have their conviction overturned. The primary basis for this Petition was the claim that Ms. Anfinson's trial counsel was ineffective to a point where her constitutional right to the assistance of counsel was violated. In other words, her attorney was alleged to have made a mistake so large that it violated her constitutional rights. In this case, the alleged mistake was refusing to consider and investigate a defense involving postpartum depression or diminished capacity as a result of that medical condition.
According to the Iowa Supreme Court's decision published this morning, Ms. Anfinson had a considerable history of medical and psychological ailments that were consistent with postpartum depression. The Court outlined numerous instances where she exhibited signs and symptoms consistent with postpartum depression. For example at her baby shower, Heidi was perceived by family members to be "exhausted, wooden and unjoyful"; she was hospitalized on 11 days after Jacob's birth and was medicated for depression, suicidal ideation and panic attacks; and she had experienced prior episodes of depression after giving birth and agreeing to the adoption of her first child in 1980 and again following an abortion in 1985. Despite family members insistence that her trial attorney have her mental status evaluated and voicing their concerns that she may have suffered from postpartum depression, trial counsel remained steadfast in his insistence that postpartum depression and diminished capacity defenses should not be pursued because in his opinion that meant that she would have deliberately killed the child which would obviously be contrary to the accidental death defense.
The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that Ms. Anfinson's potential postpartum depression would not have been useful in supporting an insanity or diminished responsibility defense. Neither the State's nor the defenses experts believed she was legally insane at the time of baby Jacob's death. With regards to the diminished capacity defense, Ms. Anfinson was only convicted of 2nd degree murder and in Iowa the defense of diminished capacity is only available in specific intent crimes which in this case would have been the first degree murder charge for which she was ultimately acquitted. Thus, the case came down to whether or not Ms. Anfinson's potential postpartum depression would have assisted in her accidental death defense. According to the Supreme Court, in order to successfully advance the accidental death theory Ms. Anfinosn needed to supply the jury with a plausible explanation of: (1) why Anfinson was so distracted an inattentive that she left her 2 week old baby unattended in bath water; (2) why she behaved irrationally in taking Jacob's body to the lake, burying it under rocks and then returning home to go to sleep; and (3) why she was emotionless later that day when she was questioned by investigators about her child's disappearance. The Supreme Court concluded that the evidence of her postpartum depression would have done so. In an unusually scathing admonishment, Justice Hecht who wrote the opinion stated: "There was ample evidence of Anfinson's postpartum depression available to trial counsel if he had chosen to undertake the most rudimentary inquiry. He chose instead to rebuff all attempts made by Anfinson's family members and her grief counselor to educate him. He closed not only his ears, but also his eyes as he neglected to obtain medical records evidencing Anfinson's mental state."
From a close reading of the Iowa Supreme Court's decision, it is apparent that Ms. Anfinson's trial counsel was found to be ineffective not just because he failed to use the postpartum depression as a defense at trial but primarily because he failed to so much as investigate her medical and psychological state surrounding the time of the child's death. Bottom line is that all defense attorneys, regardless of age, experience and notoriety have a continuing obligation to conduct a reasonable investigation into their client's defense. Sometimes clients and their family can offer valuable insight into a clients case even though many times, attorneys feel like their way is the only way. All it takes is a little extra time for a lawyer to sit and listen; nothing more, nothing less. We don't know it all and at times, the client knows best.