WARNING: This story contains graphic and sensitive content.
The trial for a woman who smothered her young daughters to death but claims she was insane at the time has entered its third week with the Crown questioning a defence expert’s “psychosis” diagnosis.
And letters between the accused killer and her husband – who found the children dead in their beds – have been revealed in court.
A jury will hear from a string of experts this week as to whether they think Lauren Anne Dickason was so mentally disturbed when she killed her children that she cannot be held responsible – or if she became so angry she snapped and murdered them.
Dickason, 42, is charged with murdering Liané – who was a week off her 7th birthday – and 2-year-old twins Maya and Karla at their Timaru home in September 2021.
The family had emigrated from South Africa and been in New Zealand less than a month when the girls died.
While Dickason admits she killed the children she has pleaded not guilty to the murder charges by reason of insanity or infanticide.
She is on trial in the High Court at Christchurch before Justice Cameron Mander and a jury of eight women and four men.
The Crown alleges Dickason murdered the children in a “calculated” way because she was frustrated, angry and resentful of them.
It acknowledges Dickason suffered from sometimes-serious depression, it maintains she knew what she was doing when she killed the girls.
Last week, Crown Prosecutor Andrew McRae alleged Dickason was an angry and frustrated woman who was “resentful of how the children stood in the way of her relationship with her husband” and killed them “methodically and purposefully, perhaps even clinically”.
The defence says Dickason was a severely mentally disturbed woman in the depths of postpartum depression and did not know the act of killing the children was morally wrong at the time of their deaths.
Further, it says she was “in such a dark place” and had decided to kill herself and felt “it was the right thing to do” to “take the girls with her”.
During the Crown case, the jury heard evidence about Dickason’s life before the alleged murders, including her gruelling fertility journey and devastating loss of a baby daughter at 18 weeks’ gestation and her family’s move to New Zealand from South Africa in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jurors heard two days of evidence from Dickason’s husband, who came home from a work function to find his three children dead in their beds.
A video of his police interview was played, and then Graham Dickason gave lengthy evidence and faced cross-examination by the defence.
The court also heard from those first to the scene after Graham Dickason found his children dead and from people who met the Dickason family after they arrived in Timaru, including the girls’ teachers.
And Dickason’s video interview with police was also played, during which she outlined how and why she killed the girls.
The defence then called evidence from Dickason’s mother and another close family member who spoke of her mental state before she left South Africa.
Experts are now being called to give evidence about Dickason – three for the defence and two for the Crown.
Defence expert grilled by Crown about timing of interview, assessment with accused
Last week Dr Susan Hatters-Friedman – a global expert on forensic and reproductive psychiatry – gave evidence for the defence.
She explained at length to the jury all the information she had considered to come to a formal conclusion about Dickason’s mental state at the time of the killing.
She interviewed Dickason four times in May and August this year, for a total of 10 hours.
On Friday she gave her formal opinion on Dickason, saying the case was a clear example of an altruistic motive – where a parent kills “out of love” rather than out of anger or hate.
She said Dickason was “severely depressed and had developed psychotic thinking”.
“It is my opinion that at the time of her alleged offending Lauren Dickason was labouring under a disease of the mind to such an extent that it rendered her incapable of knowing that the act was morally wrong. She conceptualised that [killing the children] was the right thing to do.”
Crown Prosecutor Andrew McRae then began his cross-examination of the expert – which continued today.
He questioned Hatters-Friedman about the lateness of her interactions with Dickason.
He put to her that the time between the girls’ deaths and her speaking with DIckaosn was “a weakness… in terms of being able to get a really clear diagnosis”.
Hatters-Friedman agreed it would have been “optimal” for her to have seen DIckason sooner.
However, the information she was provided together with Dickason’s police interview enabled her to use her “clinical judgement and skills” to come to her conclusion.
Since Dickason was arrested and charged she has been detained at Hillmorton Hospital in a secure mental health unit.
McRae said the first psychiatrist to see her there had a very different view to Hatters-Friedman.
He said the doctor noted Dickason had “no prominent psychotic features” and “no clear current indication of psychotic features.
He said there were not “nihilistic delusions” and “felt inadequate to parent” but “was not delusional” in relation to that.
“I could illicit no clearly psychotic symptoms… one unusual comment… there was no indication of any significant… delusions.,” he said.
“While she appeared distressed at interview she did not appear to be disassociating.
“No thought disorder… Focus and concentration were reasonable.”
On September 23 a clinical report was completed for Dickason.
In that, again, it was noted the accused was not delusional.
“Presents with major depressive episode of high severity, no psychotic symptoms,” it said.
“Assessment and plan – Lauren presents with severe depression, I continue to see no strong evidence of psychotic features although I remain open to this.”
On September 28 the psychiatrist saw Dickason again.
“No indication of any disorganisation of thought… or disassociated phenomena,” he wrote.
On October 1 the psychiatrist noted, “Lauren denied any sense of… dissociative phenomena.”
Three days later he noted “there remains no indication of any disassociative or psychotic phenomena.
“She continues to present with a major depressive episode without indication fo prominent psychotic features.”
McRae referred to a number of other clinical reports – up to more than a month after the alleged murders – where delusions or prominent psychotic symptoms were not noted.
Dickason was on “a very low dose” of antipsychotic medication at the time but the dose later increased.
Hatters-Friedman said she considered all of the clinical notes when making her assessment of the alleged murderer.
She said the notes said things like “no clear evidence” and “without overt psychotic features” the psychiatrist had “kept his mind open”
“She certainly doesn’t present as someone who is obviously psychotic in a very clear way,” Hatters-Friedman
“That’s why it’s really important that they’re paying attention to the more subtle things.”
McRae said sure the doctor who saw Dickason “in person” and a number of times close to the alleged murders would be “best placed” to make the assessment.
Hatters-Friedman agreed but asserted again her belief that his mind was “open” to Dickason being psychotic.
Further, she said “a pair of fresh eyes is able to look at things differently”.
Crown questions expert’s conclusion of ‘psychosis’
McRae put to Hatters-Friedman that if Dickason truly did hold “delusional beliefs” she would be telling others about them.
He said there was no evidence of Dickason doing that.
While it was claimed she was desperately worried about her children’s safety in New Zealand – she mentioned it to no one.
She had “an outlet for her deepest thoughts” in one friend, but said nothing to her.
“She’s not going out there and saying to the teachers… what can I do to protect my child better, and expressing those (concerns) to those around her,” said McRae.
“You’re saying that these things had reached the point of being delusions – they were fixed false beliefs in her mind. If that was the case she would be out there talking to people if that was the case wouldn’t she?”
Hatters-Friedman said that was not necessarily true – Dickason was “a doctor, a smart woman” who was “careful about how she comes across to other people”.
But McRae said the accused was “functioning at a high level” the day she killed the children – making sure their school bags were packed and hair done “immaculately”.
She managed emails and other family admin.
That, he said, was not indicative of a woman spiralling into deep psychosis.
“To get to such a level that would mean she was not able to determine her actions were not morally correct – those delusions would need to be at a level she was absolutely preoccupied,” McRae posed.
McRae also revealed letters between Dickason and her husband after her arrest.
Graham Dickason reportedly wrote to his wife saying he could not understand how the alleged murders had happened
Dickason wrote a letter, said McRae, saying she had “difficulty understanding his lack of understanding” given he had “been there with her all through it”.
The cross-examination continues.