In 1999 Marilyn Lemak killed her three children and tried to kill herself. She has spent over 22 years in jail since. People in Chicago and beyond can still remember when the news broke. Janet Lagerloef did more. She said there but for the grace of God go I and made it her mission to find out more, and then to get the case reopened. Two weeks ago Marilyn had a Clemency Hearing. It will be Xmas before we know the outcome of this.
Janet wrote this post. There are a lot pictures of Marilyn on various platforms – all of which hint at evil. The picture below is Marilyn being wheeled out of hospital en route to jail, after having her wrist wounds stitched up.
A side door opened and a deputy led the infamous Marilyn Lemak to the defendant’s table in a fourth floor courtroom in the DuPage County Courthouse. She sat between her two attorneys. It was November 27, 2001. The World Trade Center was attacked just six weeks before. Thanksgiving was over and Christmas on its way.
No one wanted to be in that courtroom, least of all Marilyn and her now ex-husband, David. Two and one half years before, Marilyn inexplicably ended the lives of their three beautiful children. Nicholas was seven; Emily, six; Thomas was nearly four. Her only explanation was that her mind told her it was the right thing to do.
The tragedy unfolded in Naperville, Illinois, just west of Chicago and north of endless cornfields. Naperville is a cool place to live. Lots of artists, business executives, and medical professionals live there. Everyone liked Lynn, as Marilyn was known. Her husband, David, was an emergency room physician. He too was well liked. Marilyn worked as a surgical nurse in an area hospital. The surgeons requested her. She was a visible community volunteer, helping regularly at the kids’ school, and she taught Sunday School. She remodeled the top floor of their elegant Victorian home into a playroom. The neighborhood kids loved to do crafts and play games up there with Nicholas, Emily, and Thomas.
But when Thomas was three, Marilyn experienced extreme exhaustion and hopelessness during the breakdown of her marriage. A general practitioner prescribed her the antidepressant, Zoloft. When it didn’t help, he steadily increased it to 200mg, a very high dose.
Shortly after that increase, she made the decision to end her life and take her children with her. She sedated them with Ativan and put her hands over their mouths and noses. She then slit her wrist with a box cutter and fell into bed to die. During the night, her blood clotted; in the morning she awakened. She called 911 thinking the operator would help her die and care for the family pets. After surgery for her severed artery, she was arrested and caged in the county jail where she sobbed and searched for a way to join her children. She knew they were scared without her.
Now she was standing trial for their murders. In the first bench behind the defendant’s table sat Marilyn’s parents. They were packing for a cruise when they got the call. They hired Jack Donahue, a respected Chicago area attorney. He launched an insanity defense. It would be an uphill battle. An Illinois jury hadn’t even found serial killer John Wayne Gacy insane.
Meanwhile, DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett held a press conference and told the throng of reporters gathered that Marilyn was perfectly sane: She was simply angry at her husband for having a girlfriend, and she wanted to hurt him in the worst possible way. Before long, this devoted mother and upstanding citizen was lumped in with John Wayne Gacy.
During jury selection, an area attorney was asked by a reporter what he’d look for in a jury if he was prosecuting Marilyn Lemak. He replied with a chuckle, “Warm bodies. If I were a prosecutor on this case, I’d probably take the first twelve people brought into the room.” He currently serves as a criminal court judge in DuPage County.
If this tragedy had happened five years later, “involuntary intoxication” would have been a more appropriate defense for Marilyn. Involuntary intoxication occurs when a person commits a crime due to trickery, force, or a medication prescribed by a doctor. When it became a legal defense in Illinois in 2006, there was significant data linking the Zoloft Marilyn was taking to extreme acts of violence.
At the prosecution’s table sat DuPage County State’s Attorney, Joe Birkett, and his co-counsel Joe Ruggiero. Birkett was running for Illinois Attorney General. He started pushing for the death penalty even before the trial began. The television crews loved him. David Lemak, his parents, and Janice, his new wife, sat on Birkett’s side of the courtroom.
Cameras were not allowed. Reporters from several television stations and newspapers filled out the gallery. A member from Pax Christi, the national peace and justice group that fights against the death penalty, attended everyday. Marilyn didn’t participate in the preparation of her trial other than to ask her attorney if Illinois was a death penalty state; she was hopeful when he said it was.
In the prosecution’s opening statement, Birkett’s co-counsel Joseph Ruggiero said, in part, “Marilyn Lemak is an angry, manipulative woman who long resented having to give up her career to stay home with the children. She was so outraged at her estranged husband, David, for openly dating another woman, that she meticulously crafted and carried out a plan to kill what he loved most in life—his kids. This defendant, in her lifetime, never exhibited any delusions, hallucinations, or psychotic symptoms. She was a typical suburban mom with an atypical temper.”
Ruggiero was right. Marilyn easily admitted she was angry when her husband left the family home to be with another woman. And when he called witnesses to the stand who were with Marilyn in the days leading to the tragedy, they testified that she didn’t appear delusional or psychotic. This testimony would square with an involuntary intoxication defense today.
The defense’s opening statements would also be appropriate. “Do not believe such a simple explanation for why a loving mother with no criminal history would commit such an unimaginable crime. She suffered such profound depression that she actually believed her children would be reunited in a ‘magical’ place away from their pain. She made a decision to free David Lemak so he could begin a new life. It was a sad end to a fairy tale. Marilyn thought how it would be better if all of them could go to sleep and wake up in a happier place.”
In most involuntary intoxication cases involving a killing, the perpetrators’ only explanation is that their mind told them it was the absolute right thing to do for everyone involved. They were never violent before the killing, nor had they become violent since. And, like Marilyn, they were solid people with good reputations.
Marilyn’s ex-husband and her father were called to testify.
“We had a wonderful life together,” David began. “Lynn and I were building a life together. Building careers together. We took trips to Europe, the Caribbean, across the U.S. The births of our three children were c-section with little complications.”
“What kind of mother was the defendant?”
“Lynn was a wonderful mother,” said David. “Kind. Loving. Nurturing. But she often seemed frustrated by motherhood. We talked to parenting experts and psychiatrists. We hired a host of nannies, au pairs, and babysitters to help her.”
In January of 1999, David began dating a nurse he met at the hospital. “The marriage was over,” he testified. “The divorce was a couple of months away. I felt it was okay to do that. I made no attempt to hide our relationship from Lynn and took Janice to a hospital function.”
“Do you think Marilyn was unable to appreciate the criminality of her actions on March 4, l999, because of a mental defect?” asked Birkett.
“No!” he replied sharply. “She was sane.”
Marilyn’s father was called to the stand.
“I observed in the days after the killings that Lynn was not the same daughter I had known for over forty years,” he testified. “She absolutely could not understand the criminality of her conduct on March 4. She’d never, ever hurt her children. Before the deaths, she was an intelligent, articulate, vibrant person. She was not in her right mind when she killed her children.”
A friend of Marilyn’s testified that Marilyn was a good mother who never lost her patience with her children.
“I considered Lynn a good friend,” testified another. “Now I don’t know who she is.”
“She called me at 11:00 a.m. on the morning of the killings,” said a one-time live-in nanny. “She told me not to come because she, Nicholas, and Thomas were sick at home. I believe she knew exactly what she was doing.”
The Lemak’s cleaning lady testified that “Lynn called me the morning of the 4th to cancel their afternoon housecleaning. She said she wasn’t going to be around.”
“On March 3, the day before the killings,” testified Emily’s kindergarten teacher, “I saw Lynn crying in the school hallway. She told me she was upset after seeing her estranged husband’s girlfriend’s car in his driveway.”
The bulk of the rest of the trial testimony came from mental health professionals who were hired by both the prosecution and the defense to evaluate Marilyn.
Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., MD, was the first to observe Marilyn when she arrived at the jail. “I found her to be dazed and haunted looking, a severely depressed woman,” he told the jury. “She barely mentioned the March 4 killings in my preliminary interviews, but she sobbed in agony as reality dawned on her thirteen days later. ‘What did I do to my kids?’ she wailed on March 17. ‘How could I do that to my kids? Oh, God, why did I do that to my kids? I don’t want to be me. I want to be dead.’” She told Dr. Rossiter she thought she was doing something that would benefit everyone. That she only wanted them to feel better by having the children go to sleep and that she suffered from severe mental illness when she did it. “I believe she had a major depression and could not appreciate the criminal nature of her conduct at the time.”
James P. Corcoran, MD, the DuPage County Jail Psychiatrist, saw her forty-three times. “I visited her cell on March 29, and she was crying. I asked her why and she said she’d asked her mother how the children were doing, and her mother told her they were dead. I do not believe she was malingering or faking her major depressive disorder.”
Other psychiatrists gave scathing testimony to the jury: James Cavanaugh Jr., MD, who worked on both the John Wayne Gacy and John Hinckley cases, declared that Marilyn was sane. “I have never seen in my career someone as methodical, with careful implementation, do what she did. She didn’t become severely depressed until after she killed her children.”
Dr. Orest Wasyliw, MD, said, “Over time, her story changes to one that is easier to wrap an insanity defense around. I believe she was sane at the time she killed her children. My opinion is that this was an act of vengeance against a husband toward whom she was extremely angry. Lemak’s rage was rooted in her belief that her husband had taken up with another woman and that this other woman might be taking up a role in her children’s lives.”
In his closing argument, Birkett described her as “the quintessential martyr.”
Donahue closed the trial saying, “Marilyn Lemak, as she sits there, remains trapped in the wreckage of her own mind. Marilyn Lemak will always remain unextricated from the unimaginable nightmare she created with her own hands.”
On December 18, when the jurors, who’d been sequestered for three weeks, met behind closed doors to begin deliberations, Christmas was only a week away. “There couldn’t have been a worse time for my sister’s trial,” remarked Marilyn’s sister. “Why in the world didn’t they hold it over until January?”
After nine hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty, rejecting any notion she was mentally impaired at the time of the killings. Marilyn barely noticed. She hadn’t paid any attention to the proceedings either. Her children were gone. Nothing mattered.
“It was a heinous act. I have little sympathy for her. I thought she was spoiled and controlling,” said a juror who was a single mother.
“I reviewed everything, all my notes, and realized the defense was not clear and convincing for the verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,’” said another.
The judge uncharacteristically showed his disdain toward Marilyn when sentencing her, an attitude he rarely showed a defendant. “It is the order of this court,” he admonished as he looked at her,
“that you will be sentenced to a term of natural life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the deaths of Nicholas, Emily, and Thomas Lemak. A life sentence for murdering your three young children will force you every day to ponder the terrible acts you committed. It is appropriate you spend the rest of your life thinking about these children. You may even see images of your children as you sit in prison and hear their voices: ‘Why Mom? We loved you, Mom. Why did you do this?’”
A few months later, Marilyn shuffled to a white Department of Corrections van waiting to take her to prison for the rest of her days. Shackled and cuffed, she didn’t say a word as the van dieseled south, passing cornfield after cornfield, leaving the cool town of Naperville far behind.
Marilyn’s safety in a state penitentiary was uncertain: The inmates there watched the Chicago nightly news too; they knew she was coming.