PITTSBURGH — A western Pennsylvania woman charged with drowning her two youngest sons in their bathtub because she wanted to be a better mother to their remaining older brother has been found guilty but mentally ill of third-degree murder.
Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning found that Laurel Schlemmer’s mental capacity was diminished by her illness so that she could not form the specific intent to kill required of the first-degree murder conviction prosecutors sought for the April 2014 killings.
First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence. But given Schlemmer’s age and the penalties for third-degree murder — as much as 20 to 40 years on each count — she may well receive what amounts to a life sentence when she returns for sentencing June 8.
Because the 43-year-old McCandless woman was found mentally ill, she’ll begin any prison sentence she receives in a state mental hospital and then be moved to prison to serve the remainder if doctors ever deem her cured.
“It is my fervent hope that in the future, mental health treatment will bring you, Ms. Schlemmer, to the shocking realization of what you have done so that you will continue to be punished far beyond any sentence this court may impose,” Manning said.
Defense attorney Michael Machen said the judge could sentence Schlemmer consecutively for the murders of 6-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Luke, meaning she could receive as much as 40 to 80 years in prison, plus any time Manning might add for child endangerment and evidence tampering.
Machen called the case “difficult and complex” and praised the judge for navigating the mental health issues that made the case a why-dunit instead of a who-dunit. Manning said in delivering the verdict that he was forced to “wrestle with some puzzling psychiatric issues.”
A friend of Schlemmer’s, Jenn Martino, handed out a brief statement on behalf of other friends.
“We do not condone or excuse what she did,” the statement said. “However, we want people to know she is not heartless, but rather a beloved child of God who sadly was suffering from mental illness in the form of depression and anxiety.”
Psychiatrists for the prosecution and defense testified that Schlemmer became concerned that her two youngest sons were autistic and would never grow up normally even though a battery of tests she put them through showed no signs of the mental condition.
Schlemmer met her husband, Mark, on a Christian singles online dating site, and told doctors she felt “pressured” to have more children as her husband opted not to use birth control for religious reasons.
She also had three miscarriages and considered her younger sons, especially Daniel, to be “foreign” to her and her husband and not as easy to raise as their oldest boy, who was 7 when she drowned the other two children, said Dr. Bruce Wright. He testified for the prosecution.
Schlemmer had acknowledged trying to kill Luke and Daniel in April 2013 by tying their hands and feet with twine then backing over them with her car three times, only to later claim that was an accident. Police and social workers came to the same conclusion and no charges were filed though Schlemmer told her husband days before the drownings that she wanted to confess the earlier incident to police, but he talked her out of it, prosecutors said.
Mark Schlemmer attended last week’s trial testimony but was not in the courtroom for the verdict. Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini told the judge that Mark Schlemmer has repeatedly violated a court order that Laurel Schlemmer have no contact with their surviving son by bringing him to visit his mother while she was incarcerated awaiting trial.
Judge Manning indicated that Mark Schlemmer would be held in contempt of court if that continued.