Mom found guilty of assault in deaths 

LaShuan Harris is guilty of throwing her children into the Bay, but it has yet to be determined whether she knew what she was doing at the time, a ruling that will determine if she will be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison or sent to a psychiatric hospital.

After seven days of deliberation, a seven-man, five-woman jury Tuesday found Harris, 24, guilty of three counts of assault on a child causing death. However, they acquitted her of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of multiple homicides — an offense that can garner the death penalty.

The jury has not reached a verdict on three counts of second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. The jurors continue deliberations today.

Harris has pleaded not guilty to the charges but she has also entered a separate plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. After the jury decides the question of guilt, the case will enter a second phase where the jury decides whether Harris was insane or aware of her actions. That will determine how long her sentence will be and where she will serve it.

On the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2005, Harris, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, walked with her three childrento the end of Pier 7 in San Francisco. One by one, she undressed them and threw 6-year-old Trayshawn Harris, 2-year-old Taronta Greely Jr. and 16-month-old Joshua Greely over the rail to their deaths in the Bay.

Harris said she heard voices telling her to send her children as a sacrifice to God because of "spiritual warfare." Only Taronta’s body was recovered from the Bay.

The assault charges of which Harris was found guilty each carry a maximum penalty of 25 years to life in prison, while the second-degree murder charges carry a maximum 15 years to life in prison. Under state law, if Harris is found guilty of the two charges for the same crime, she must be sentenced under the greater penalty.

But if Harris is found by a jury to be insane, she could face just one-and-a-half years of custody before being eligible for a civil jury trial to prove she has been returned to sanity. Harris, however, cannot petition for her own release. Hospital and county officials must do that.

Prosecuter Linda Allen acknowledged during the trial that Harris is mentally ill and thought she was sending her children to God, but she argued that Harris still knew that she was killing her children when she threw them into the chilly Bay waters. Harris knew, Allen argued, that her children had to die in order to get to heaven.

"It’s clear that she needs help and she needs to be in the hospital," Harris’ lawyer, Teresa Cafesse, said after the verdict was read. She refused to comment on the insanity phase of the trial, but said the case speaks to a larger issue of the state’s mental health system and "whether we’re going to allow the prison system to be a repository for the mentally ill."

Outcomes in similar cases

The verdict in similar cases in which a mother drowned her children:

» Despite a plea of insanity, Susan Smith, who drowned two of her children in 1994 by driving her car into a lake, was found guilty on two counts of murder. The South Carolina woman is serving a sentence of 30 years to life in prison, and will be eligible for parole in 2025.

» Originally sentenced to life in prison, the sentence for Andrea Yates — a Texas mother who drowned all five of her children in the family bathtub in 2001 — was overturned in 2006, and she was found innocent by reason of insanity. Yates is being held in a maximum-security mental hospital, although her attorneys are seeking to have her moved to another mental facility that is not maximum security.

» Rebekah Amaya, a mother from Colorado who drowned her two children in the bathtub in 2003, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In 2005, a judge ruled she was not competent to stand trial, charges were dropped and she was committed to the state mental health hospital.

» Amanda Hamm, a mother from Illinois, was present when her three children drowned when the family car rolled into a lake in 2003. Her boyfriend at the time of the drownings was convicted in April 2006 of murdering the children and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Hamm was acquitted of murder charges and was instead convicted in December 2006 of child endangerment, which carries a sentence ranging from probation to 20 years in prison. She has been jailed for three years. — Bonnie Eslinger

amartin@examiner.com

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