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This site brought me to tears … I’ve changed my mind.

October 1st, 2007 · No Comments

by Kara Angevine
in: college criminal justice class

The justice system was designed to keep violent offenders off the street and to keep innocent people safe. It’s a system that was supposed to be a voice for the victim’s that are no longer with us, to prevent the offenders from continuing to commit such horrible crimes. It’s a way for people to have to
pay for their crimes by cutting them off from the luxuries of the outside world and, in some sense, make an example out of them and their actions as a warning to other who may follow down that path. But what would you say of this system that nearly let a convicted serial killer out of jail due to overcrowding, a killer who claimed he’d kill again if released; a system that has no real sentencing guidelines for sexual pedophiles that continually go through the revolving doors of the justice system and receive anything from probation to just five years in jail.

There are many advocates for these true criminals who believe they deserve not jail time, but rehabilitation and that they deserve a second chance in society to prove themselves. But like any system, our legal system has more flaws in it than anything right. It is currently housing what seems to be the all American woman for nearly fifty years because of one terrible, tragic incident and bad judgment call that she made.

This is Heidi Anfinson’s story, a Des Moines woman who in 2000 was convicted of second degree murder in the 1998 death of her newborn son Jacob. Since Heidi’s conviction, her family continues to be on an emotional and exhausting roller coaster ride through Iowa’s legal system, believing that she too is a victim of this flawed system. Looking at the case the prosecutor presented, it seemed cut and dry. They intended to prove that Heidi was a cold blooded killer who viciously and intentionally killed her newborn son. It seemed like an easy enough task to prove, and listening to the prosecution you might believe it. But looking at the aftermath of the case, you have to wonder if this system that is supposed to make an example out of someone, that is supposed to protect society from a violent person, and to punish this woman for her crime is really accomplishing it’s goal – and if there was more to Heidi’s story that may have changed the outcome of the case.

Heidi’s saga began on September 20th, 1998. Just fifteen days earlier, Heidi had given birth to her first child, a boy she and her husband Mike named Jacob Michael. Like any couple and first time parents, Heidi and Mike were overjoyed at their new life. Heidi and Mike had been together for nearly a decade and had recently gotten married and bought a home leading up to Jacob’s birth. Mike worked as a computer engineer, and Heidi had worked for nearly a decade at a local restaurant as an assistant manager and was described as the most popular and requested waitress.

On the morning of Sunday, September 20th, Mike left his home to go four wheeling with friends, leaving Heidi and Jacob home alone. When he arrived back home later that afternoon, he found Heidi asleep in the couple’s bedroom; however, Jacob was nowhere to be found. After Heidi claimed she didn’t know where he was, police were immediately called and were at the house within minutes. They searched the house and neighborhood for any sign of the baby but found nothing.

Several hours later, they took Mike and Heidi down to the police station where they interviewed the couple separately. Heidi continued to maintain that Jacob was kidnapped and that she had nothing to do with his disappearance, but judging from her interrogation tape it was obvious the police didn’t believe it. Six hours into the interview, Heidi finally confessed and told police what had really happened to her son. Earlier that day, Heidi was giving Jacob a bath in his infant tub when her telephone rang. Heidi took the phone call out on the deck so she could smoke a cigarette. She told the police that she believed she was out there around ten minutes. When she came back inside, she discovered that Jacob had slipped under the water and drowned. In a panic, Heidi wrapped Jacob in a blanket and drove him thirty minutes away to Saylorville Lake, where she placed him in the water before returning home.

Originally, Heidi was charged with child endangerment, but later the charge was changed to murder in the first degree. The prosecutor, John Sarcone, believed that Heidi intentionally and maliciously murdered her newborn son and didn’t buy her claim that it was an accident. It was Sarcone’s allegation that Jacob drowned not in his infant tub, but that his mother drove him to the lake and intentionally drowned him there. Sarcone and his experts he called during the trial claimed it was impossible for an infant to drown in a bathtub and that bacteria found in the baby’s lungs and blood proved that he drowned in the lake.

The defense had its own experts who claimed that infants drowning in a bathtub is fairly common; two other experts testified that there wasn’t nearly enough bacteria in Jacob’s lungs to prove he was left alive in the lake as Sarcone claimed, and that bacteria can live in a deceased human being for a time.

Sarcone went even further in his smear campaign against Heidi, claiming that
gashes found on Jacob’s head were caused by his mother slashing him with a sharp instrument prior to drowning him. The defense called a wild life expert on its behalf that said any type of bird living around the lake could have caused those gashes. The prosecution could never produce a weapon, and no blood of Jacob’s was found in Heidi’s car that she drove to the lake nor was any of his blood found on the blanket his body had been wrapped in.

Heidi’s only defense at the time was that she left Jacob in his tub to take a phone call, and upon discovering him panicked. The prosecution claimed that no one who did something like this accidentally would react in such a way. The trial lasted just one week, but for Heidi and her family, this was just the beginning of their roller coaster ride. Her first trial ended not with a conviction, but a mistrial. The jury was deadlocked 11-1.

The jury had several options they could convict Heidi on; first degree murder, which is what prosecutor Sarcone wanted. Second degree murder, if they believed Heidi intentionally killed her baby but that it wasn’t pre-meditated; manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter if they truly believed it was an accident and that she did just panic; and finally, they could find her not guilty. Eleven jurors voted for second degree murder. Only one juror voted against the group for involuntary manslaughter, saying she believed it was just an accident. Heidi’s second trial, beginning in February of 2000, did end with a verdict: guilty of murder in the second degree.

In two trials, Sarcone had convinced twenty three people of his claim that Heidi had intentionally and violently killed her baby and tried to cover up the crime. Under Iowa state law, Heidi was sentenced to a maximum of fifty years in jail, and must serve a minimum of forty two and a half years before she can ask for parole.

On first glance, this seemed like an open and shut case. A mother makes up a lie to cover up a horrible crime. And it’s probably what many in societies want to believe. It’s easier and can make people sleep easier at night to buy the prosecutions side of things. But what about what you didn’t hear? Nine years after Jacob’s death, Heidi’s husband Mike continues to stand by her, as does her family and friends.

They are continuing to ask for appeals on Heidi’s original conviction, claiming that Heidi’s original defense attorney, Bill Kutmus, never considered an insanity defense or that Heidi might have been suffering from postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is when hormones in the body change rapidly during pregnancy and after birth. It’s been known to cause mothers to act violently towards their children or to take on strange behaviors, develop new anxieties and paranoia about being a parent and their children.

This is Heidi’s defense now, but it’s not just an excuse the family is trying to come up with to get her a new trial. Heidi’s family originally brought it up to Kat mus before her first trial even began, but he wanted no part of a postpartum defense. Back in 1998, postpartum depression was still something relatively new in the scientific community and it was a defense strategy that didn’t have the best results.

Trying to prove postpartum depression, mental illness, or insanity can be a trying thing for a defense attorney. What really put postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis in the spotlight was the case of Andrea Yates, a Texas mother who drowned her five children in 2001. She claimed God had told her to do so and that she was protecting them from evil. Despite this claim and having a history of mental illness, Yates was originally convicted and sentenced to die for the deaths of her children. Her conviction was later overturned and she’s now serving time in a mental health facility.

Perhaps it’s the very word, mental illness and insanity, that give jurors and people in society such a hard time to understand what it really means. When you think of those things, typically the images you get are a crazy person walking down the street believing they’re God and that the sky is falling. No one could think that an ordinary, everyday, hard working woman like Heidi Anfinson would suffer from an illness that would affect her judgment in how she handled the death of her son.

Since Heidi’s defense attorney was so quick to turn a deaf ear to her family’s pleas about her possibly suffering from postpartum depression, Heidi was never
given a psychological evaluation. Yet many serial killers and sexual pedophiles are given that luxury, along with all the others in the judicial system to help prove their case for insanity.

Having served on a jury myself, you realize how your emotions can take over. Maybe the jurors on Heidi’s trial wanted her to suffer even more than she already was for her son’s death. Since the option of postpartum depression was
never brought up, they had no reason to believe that the prosecutions picture of Heidi as an unemotional, uncaring mother wasn’t accurate. Again, it may just be easier for a jury to believe that Heidi killed her son and that nothing else played a part in it.

The best the defense could do was try and show what a caring, thoughtful person Heidi was by presenting friends of hers on the stand, along with maintaining
Jacob’s death was just an accident. Putting aside the postpartum argument, ask yourself this: suppose Heidi just did panic. Everyone, including those who convicted her, would want to believe that they’d do the “right thing” and not act in the way she did. But until you’re in that situation yourself, no one has any idea how they’d react.

Parents leave their children unattended all the time, and all it takes is a split second for something to happen. A cousin of mine was once scalded when he was three years old, after my aunt left a pan of boiling water on the table and left the room for less than a minute. That’s all it took for my cousin to climb up on a chair and pull the pan down on him. My aunt didn’t immediately call 911; instead she ran him into the bathroom and tried to cool him off with ice cold water. She waited fifteen minutes
before calling an ambulance. She said in her state she didn’t even know what she was doing. Is she a horrible, uncaring parent for leaving her son unattended for less than a minute with a boiling pot of water on the table?

In the news lately we hear more stories of children who are left in hot cars after their parents “forget” them. Most people shake their head at the thought of a mother or father remembering their purse or cell phone but forgetting about their child strapped in the backseat. But are these parents’ terrible, uncaring individuals who deserve to be punished for a stupid lack of judgment? What good would it do to put these individuals in our already overcrowded jail system, while the real predators that are a threat to society are forced out as a result?

Heidi Anfinson had a bad judgment call. She had an incompetent defense attorney who was likely afraid of pursuing an insanity defense or raising the possibility that Heidi was suffering from postpartum depression, despite her family’s claims that something had been wrong with her after Jacob’s birth and death. It could be Bill Kat mus was afraid of the unknown, of not being able to win the case or convince a jury that what Heidi did that day may have been out of her control.

With extensive media exposure on cases nowadays, and America’s fascination with crime stories, it seems our system has turned into guilty until proven innocent. It could be a fear that people don’t like to think mental illness could affect them or their loved ones and cause them to act in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, or handle a situation differently.

Society may not be ready to accept that not all criminals are the monsters like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. Heidi’s friends and family continue to stand by her. They, too, loved and mourn her son, but they also mourn for her. They have nothing but good and kind things to say about the type of individual that she is. All agreed she loved her son and couldn’t wait to be a mom.

Mental illness needs a better understanding in our society. States need better sentencing guidelines. Defendants should be required to receive mental health evaluations in cases like Heidi’s.

Society needs to put their own feelings on the back burner and really examine a case and ask if a woman who received nothing but praise from her friends and family, who has never done anything violent in her life, who looked and acted like a happy new mother, could really have violently killed her son. And we
need to ask, does Heidi really deserve what she got? Her son died due to her negligence; she’s never denied that. And she has lived with that sad reality since the day it happened. Making an example out of Heidi Anfinson isn’t going to prevent another mother from walking away from her infant child in the bathtub for a few minutes thinking nothing bad will happen.

Heidi Anfinson is of no threat to anyone on the outside world. So for a system that is supposed to protect society, to protect the individuals whether they are the victim’s or defendants, it failed to do so for both Jacob Anfinson and his mother.

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