Salem Woman Sentenced to Lengthy Prison Term for Attempting to Murder Her Children

A 27-year-old Salem woman was sentenced yesterday to serve 20-25 years in state prison after pleading guilty to attempting to murder her children. 

According to the Boston Herald, Tanicia Goodwin pleaded guilty to seven criminal offenses yesterday in Salem superior court including armed assault with intent to murder, arson, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon on a child, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury.

On March 18, 2012, the defendant’s eight-year-old son, Jamaal, was sitting on his bedroom floor watching a movie and eating cereal for dinner.  The defendant approached him, said, “I’m sorry, Jamaal, but you’ve lived too long,” and slit his throat with a kitchen knife.  According to the Boston Globe, Jamaal’s trachea was almost severed and a muscle over the carotid artery was cut.  The defendant told Jamaal that he could say goodbye to his three-year-old sister and led him to the living room where the sister, Erica, was laying in a pool of her own blood.  The defendant had also slit Erica’s throat, severing major muscles in her neck and her jugular veins.  After cutting her children’s throats, the defendant doused them with lighter fluid and set fire to the apartment.  The defendant and Erica left, but not before the defendant removed the interior doorknob so Jamaal would be trapped inside.  Firefighters responded, extinguished the blaze, and rescued Jamaal.  Meanwhile, the defendant dropped off Erica at a neighbor’s home and traveled to the Salem Police Department where she said, “I’m sorry babies.  I did what I had to do to protect my children.”

Both children survived and are living with other family members.  During the sentencing hearing, the defendant’s attorney told the judge that the defendant has suffered from mental illness since she was a little girl and has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.  Since her arrest, the defendant has been hospitalized nine times for mental health episodes.  The defendant told the judge she also suffers from bipolar disorder and is on multiple medications to control her mental illnesses.  As part of her sentence, the defendant was ordered to have no contact with the children or their caretakers.

This case illustrates the heartbreaking mental health conditions that often cause people to commit heinous crimes.  When severely mentally ill people are charged with crimes, criminal defense attorneys consider two mental health defenses: lack of criminal responsibility and incompetence to stand trial.

Lack of criminal responsibility means that at the time of the crime, a mental illness or defect prohibited the defendant from appreciating the wrongfulness of the criminal behavior or prevented the defendant from obeying the law.  Because lack of criminal responsibility deals with the defendant’s mental state at the time the crime was committed, the defendant can assert this defense even if he or she is perfectly sane at the time of the trial.  Competence to stand trial, on the other hand, deals with whether the defendant is mentally healthy enough to meaningfully assist in his or her own defense.  Competence deals with a defendant’s mental state as the litigation is progressing toward the trial.  Incompetence is fluid, which means that an incompetent defendant can regain competence as time goes on (either through medication or therapy or the simple passage of time).  Lack of criminal responsibility cannot change, since it is a snapshot of the defendant’s mental state at the moment the crime was committed.  If a defendant is found incompetent or having lacked criminal responsibility, it does not necessarily mean that he or she will be released from custody.  If the charges are serious, the defendant will likely be committed to a locked mental health facility for a period of time (or indefinitely depending on the charges).