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'Harsh' to convict 'mentally ill' Lauren Dickason of children's murders - expert

The author of a book about parents who kill their children says Lauren Dickason was clearly mentally ill on that tragic day she ended her daughters' lives. 

Dickason, 42, was on Wednesday found guilty of murdering her three daughters Liane, six, and two-year-old twins Karla and Maya, at their home in Timaru in September 2021, the jury rejecting her defence of insanity and infanticide.

Several experts from the mental health field gave evidence during the four-week trial. Watching from afar was Professor Thea Brown of Australia's Monash University, whose specialty area is filicide - the act of killing one's child or children. In 2017 she published a book on the topic, When Parents Kill Children.

"I think it's a very harsh verdict," Brown told RNZ's Checkpoint just hours after the jury delivered its 11-1 guilty verdict at the High Court in Christchurch.

"I think the community is not very sympathetic to mothers who kill all their children - similar situations that happened in Australia where the jury has shown no sympathy to the mother."

A date for Dickason's sentencing is yet to be set. Brown said in Australian cases, sentences were sometimes reduced on appeal.

"It looks from afar like the jury did not accept the defence's view that that Mrs Dickason was mentally ill. And from our research, we would say yes, that she was mentally ill."

Asked if a lone judge would have come to a different verdict than a jury, Brown said she was not sure. 

Brown said Dickason showed "all the sort of characteristics" of a mother struggling with mental illness. 

"She had a stressful departure from her country of origin, moving to New Zealand. She had the stress of trying to get pregnant. She had the stress of settling in a new country and she would not have been what you might say integrated in her community, being a relatively recent settler. And there was reference in the defence to the fact that she'd experienced quite a lot of domestic tension…

"It looked to me that the defence presented a clear case of mental illness and other stressful factors, but the jury didn't accept that."

While any parent who caused their child's death would struggle to appear sympathetic, Brown said juries struggled with mothers in particular.

"They think that mothers have a caring role. They believe that mothers have a stronger responsibility to care for their children than they believe fathers have. So I think, yes, that because she was a woman or because she was a mother that there was less sympathy shown to her."

While in her view prison was not the right place for Dickason, she said it had "some advantages" as there would be an opportunity for treatment. 

"She would not feel that life had very much to offer her at this point, and so she may not really want to be outside a prison. I don't know. But look, she certainly needs a lot of treatment, a lot of care and a lot of support."

Dickason has been remanded to a mental health facility. Justice Cameron Mander has ordered a mental health assessor to determine if they believe she needs any special sentencing conditions. 

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