Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His bio and contact information is here. He now writes the Picayune Sentinel, where Marilyn Lemak speaks out about her bid for clemency first appeared.
‘I do think about my kids every single day.’
DuPage County Judge George J. Bakalis’ wish came true.
When sentencing then-44-year-old Marilyn Lemak to life in prison without the possibility of parole in May 2002 for the crime of murdering her three young children, he told her he hoped that “every day as you look at the (prison) walls, the floor, the ceiling, the bars, you will see the faces of these young children and hear these young voices asking you, `Why, Mom? We loved you, Mom. Why did you do this to us?'”
“I do think about my kids every single day in some way or another,” Lemak told me last week, speaking by phone from Logan Correctional Center roughly halfway between Springfield and Bloomington/Normal in the first published interview she has granted to Chicago-area journalist.
“Time has made it — well, easier is not the word — but I can now talk about it without turning into a blubbering, sobbing mess.”
The “Why?” question has hung over this gut-wrenching story since March 4, 1999, when Lemak, a surgical nurse, methodically drugged and suffocated her children Nicholas, 7, Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3, in their picturesque Victorian home in Naperville. She then took a fistful of pills, slashed her wrists with a box cutter, stabbed a photograph of her estranged husband in the heart, bled onto her old wedding dress and lay down hoping to die.
“I was thinking, ‘He doesn’t want me,’” she said, referring to her now-ex-husband, a physician who had moved out of the house and started dating another woman as the marriage had fallen apart.
“‘He doesn’t want (the children). This is a good thing. We’re going to be in a better place, and he can move on. Everybody’s going to be happy. Everybody. He’s going to be happy. I’m going to be happy. The kids are going to be happy. Everybody’s going to be happy.’
“I wasn’t thinking that it was going to hurt anybody, as crazy as that sounds. And I know it sounds crazy. I know it. How can somebody think that? But that’s where I was.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Well, I’ve been depressed, and I would never kill anybody. I would never kill my kids.’ And the only thing I can think to say in response is that you have probably never experienced the depths of hopelessness and helplessness that I was feeling at the time.”
She awoke hours later and called 911: “I did it,” she told the operator. “My husband didn’t want us anymore.”
The overwhelmingly awful story of the pretty, wealthy, well-educated professional who methodically murdered her children made headlines around the world. What the hell happened there?
Covering the Trial
She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. When covering part of her trial in late 2001, I wrote:
What words would we use to describe the mental state of a woman — a reportedly attentive, engaged and kind mother who’d didn’t even believe in spanking — who one day drugged her children and killed them with her bare hands? …
We’d say she’d lost her mind, gone crazy, come unhinged. We’d say she had snapped, fallen out of her tree and gone around the bend. … Deranged, loony, bonkers, cracked, touched. (But) these are not terms of law. You don’t find them in the statutes or hear them in court. They are terms of common sense. She was whacked. Cuckoo. Meshuga. Mad as a March hare.
And whether it all adds up to the legal definition of “insane” is the question of the moment in a trial that’s shaping up as a month-long semantic argument.
On one side, the prosecutors who want to execute Lemak say no, she was not “insane,” she was just really angry because her husband was getting on with his life as their divorce proceeded.
On the other side, defense attorneys who want to put Lemak in a mental institution for treatment and possible release someday say yes, she was legally insane because mental illness had left her without “substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct.”
Both positions seem, well, daft. … OK, she was out of her head. But it’s almost impossible to believe she didn’t know the act was terribly wrong. The law tries to look into the tangled thicket of the human mind and see black and white where sense and experience see infinite shades of gray. We see this pitiful, frail, bespectacled woman sitting silently at the defense table in jail fatigues (a bit of stagecraft by the defense), her lethal, veiny hands holding a cup of water and her entire body shaking slightly but constantly to the rhythm of her ever-swinging crossed leg, and we know only that she is neither innocent nor wholly evil.
Interviewing Marilyn Lemak
Lemak, now 64, told me last week she has almost no memory of her trial and of the months prior to it she spent in the DuPage County Jail. “I was a zombie,” she said. “I don’t even know what kind of meds they had me on, but they kept giving me pills and more pills, and I was also drawing into myself. I sometimes think I remember fragments here and there, but I’m not really sure if it’s something that I remember or something that somebody told me.”
She said she does recall feeling profound disappointment that Judge Bakalis didn’t sentence her to die after a jury rejected her insanity defense and that she remained suicidal during her first years in prison.
“I was constantly thinking, how can I kill myself? What can I do that’s going to work this time?” she said. “And I did some stuff to myself. I gathered up lots of ibuprofen and lots of Tylenol to try to overdose. Then I turned into a cutter.”
Nevertheless, she said, in 2005 she persuaded doctors to take her totally off the psychoactive medications they’d once said she’d be on for the rest of her life.
Reporters — including me — would write to her periodically to ask for an interview, but she said she threw all such requests into the trash because she didn’t want to bring the story back to light and unearth all the pain associated with it for others as well as herself.
Lemak finally agreed in August 2011 to an on-camera interview with French filmmakers preparing a documentary on women who harm their children. She said she wanted to speak out about the role severe depression can play in dreadful acts of violence and that she naively believed that the footage would be seen only in France.
But portions and outtakes of that interview became the basis for Chicago-area news stories. And the local coverage gave former DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett the chance to publicly reiterate the view that Lemak had not been legally insane when she killed Nicholas, Emily and Thomas.
“She never had a break from reality,” said Birkett, who is now an Illinois Appellate Court judge. “She knew what she was doing. She had a full appreciation of her conduct. It was a combination of depression, revenge and guilt over what she had done to her marriage even before she had killed her children.”
That explanation did not satisfy her, Lemak told me. She was still haunted by the question Judge Bakalis had put into the mouths of her dead children: “Why?”
Janet Lagerloef, a freelance writer from Sugar Grove, helped point Lemak in another direction. She was among those who had been writing unanswered letters to Lemak, in part, she told me, because her battle with depression “as a mother who had experienced her own dark years,” led her to believe this was not a simple story of an angry wife taking revenge.
“I met her for the first time in January of 2012. She said she was finally speaking out only because she hoped it would save lives. She made me promise not to sensationalize her children in any way. We shook on it. Depression was her only explanation for what she did”.
Lagerloef, who is finishing up a book on the case, began helping Lemak look into the role that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drug Zoloft (sertraline chloride) might have played in her grotesquely distorted thinking in the days leading up to the murders.
The doctor treating her for depression as her marriage was dissolving had started her on 50 milligrams daily of Zoloft in June 1998, but gradually increased the dosage to 200 milligrams a day starting less than two months before she killed her children and attempted to kill herself.
The possible role that drug played in those actions forms the basis of the petition for executive clemency Lemak submitted last year to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in which she asked to be paroled. Here is a quote from that petition as filed by her attorneys Andy Vickery and Jed Stone:
For more than 20 years, I have been a model prisoner. I’m completely rehabilitated and certainly my release for time served or unsupervised parole would pose no threat to society as a whole or to any person. … At the time of my offense, I was under the influence of 200 milligrams of an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. At that time there was nothing on the label of that medication to warn … that this drug could trigger mania or psychosis and / or that it could precipitate irrational, out of character violence toward myself or my children. (Since 2005) a specific patient medication guide about these risks must accompany each prescription of this drug. …
A separate Black Box warning is now distributed to the prescribing physicians alerting them to the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors and advising them to closely monitor all antidepressant treated patients in clinical worsening and for emergence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. … At the time of my offense in 1999, and my trial in November of 2001, Illinois Law did not permit my attorneys to raise involuntary intoxication as a defense to a crime of this nature. The statute which provides for this defense only applied if someone tricked you into taking a drug. It did not apply to a situation like mine, (where) the drug was prescribed by a medical doctor.
The petition cites the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in People v. Hari in which the court ordered a new trial for a man who’d shot his wife and killed a man she was dating. At the time, the killer was taking 25 milligrams of Zoloft while also drinking alcohol and ingesting Tylenol PM.
“We do not decide here whether (the) defendant is relieved of culpability due to the alleged side effects caused by the ingestion of Zoloft,” said the unanimous opinion of the court. “Rather … we find that the jury should have been given an involuntary intoxication instruction, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”
Lemak agreed to an interview with me — her first with anyone but Lagerloef in 11 years — as part of an effort to draw attention to her bid for clemency. Attorney Jed Stone of Waukegan sat in on the 54 minute call but did not attempt to guide or correct Lemak, who spoke in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin’s office filed a response in opposition to Lemak’s petition, categorizing her actions as “rageful” and saying prosecutors “do not accept” that “Zoloft made her kill her children.”
(Lemak) contends that she was unable to mount a defense of involuntary intoxication due to the state of the law at the time she murdered her children. Because she was taking Zoloft, prescribed by her doctor to help treat her depression, (she) suggests she was not legally responsible for killing her children. By means of her petition she asks the governor to determine that any such defense would have been successful.
She believes she has legal avenues available to her to raise such a challenge to her convictions. A successful challenge would result in the opportunity for a new trial. But (Lemak) would “much prefer executive clemency from the board and governor in the form of commutation to time served.” The people urged that this statement itself demonstrates that (she) is not an appropriate candidate for clemency — no miscarriage of justice can have occurred if there remains an avenue in the justice system for (her) to bring her claims and obtain relief. …
Executive clemency is a fail-safe to be used where all other avenues within the system have failed. … Petitioner states that she has “paid a heavy price” for her “part in” her actions of killing her three children. She cites her “loss of freedom for the past 20-plus years” and the “deterioration of many friendships and family relationships.” She notes her remorse and that she has taken “full responsibility for her part” in her actions.
But the “heavy price” she has paid is incomparable to the opportunities that she took from her children to grow up, have their own children (and) make a difference in the world. Or the price paid by their father and other family members (who were not able) to see them grow up.
Lemak’s attorneys haven’t yet filed for a new trial, hoping that Gov. J.B. Pritzker will see his way to releasing her after the November election.
Lemak told me that if she is released — or even if she never is — she intends to work to publicize the potential dangers of SSRI medications. For now, she said, she’s leading a very routine life in prison, helping to paint walls, assisting instructors putting together course packets, inventorying instructional books and otherwise trying to fill the long days by being useful.
“I’m not trying to make excuses for myself,” she told me. “I’m not trying to say, ’Oh, it wasn’t me, it was just the medication.’ But I am trying to understand what happened. How did this happen?”
She was not in her right mind when she committed an act that was horrifying beyond words. That seems obvious. How and why she got to that state and how much if any mercy she deserves 23 years later is less obvious, and a question that I know from long experience will prompt harsh and angry reactions along with probing philosophical queries and even expressions of sympathy.
The state keeps Marilyn Lemak locked up not to prevent her from committing more crimes — her record was spotless before March 1999, and she’s been a well-behaved prisoner. The state keeps her locked up to underscore society’s revulsion at what she did and to punish her in the belief that there is no way she could sufficiently punish herself, no matter the reason she spiraled into murderous madness.
We can’t grapple with the question of justice until we grapple seriously with Judge Bakalis’ question:
This post will be followed this week by Readers Responses and then a post by Janet Lagerloef offering some context.