SANTA ANA (CNS) - A 34-year-old woman twice convicted of drowning her infant daughter in a Santa Ana trailer park was found today to have been insane at the time of the killing and will be spared a prison sentence.
Lucero Carrera was first convicted in January 2015 of drowning her 2- month-old daughter, Kimberly Gutierrez, six years ago and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, but her conviction was overturned on appeal.
In July, Carrera was convicted again, but jurors deadlocked in the sanity phase of the trial, so a new panel was sworn in to consider whether Carrera was legally sane at the time of the drowning.
Jurors deliberated for a little more than two days before reaching a verdict that Carrera was not guilty by reason of insanity. Mental health experts will evaluate Carrera to determine, by a Dec. 19 hearing, whether she should be sent to a state mental health facility or be treated as an outpatient.
Carrera could be sent to a state mental health facility indefinitely until doctors determine that her sanity has been restored.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark Birney argued that while Carrera was mentally ill at the time she drowned her daughter in a whirlpool bath in a trailer park at 518 S. Sullivan St., her impairment did not render her unable to understand what she was doing or the difference between right and wrong.
“While she was mentally ill, she wasn't legally insane,” Birney said after the verdict was handed down. “But a hard-working jury felt otherwise.”
Carrera's attorney, Jennifer Nicolalde, said, “I'm very grateful to the jury for their hard work and consideration. This is obviously a tragic case. Lucero is going to get the treatment she deserves. This was the just and humane verdict.”
Nicolalde told jurors that several experts testified that her client was not “faking or malingering” a mental illness after she drowned her daughter on June 29, 2012.
Carrera had a history of mental illness that included five hospitalizations, according to Nicolalde, who said her client “suffered extreme traumatic childhood” experiences and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
Carrera was 14 the first time she tried to kill herself, her attorney said. She suffered suicidal ideation since she was 10 or 11, and also had “auditory hallucinations” with voices telling her not to eat and to inflict pain on herself, Nicolalde said.
“She did well on medication,” Nicolalde said. “She stopped taking it about a month before it happened because she wanted to be sure she would be awake to take care of the baby. She was worried about dropping the baby or not being awake because the medication caused severe drowsiness.”
The burden of proof in a sanity phase of a trial is lower than the guilt portion. Instead of the reasonable doubt standard, jurors are asked to consider whether the defense has proven the defendant was insane by a preponderance of the evidence.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned Carerra's 2015 conviction and ordered a new trial in June of last year. The justices ruled jurors should have been given an instruction to consider the defendant's “mental impairment” in the guilt phase of the trial.
The appellate justices ruled that the trial judge did not err in not giving the instruction, but said a defense attorney should have requested it. The justices noted that a juror in the first trial sent a note to the judge asking if the panel should consider Carrera's state of mind when determining her guilt.
The jurors should have been given an instruction that they could consider “evidence of Carrera's mental impairment to determine whether she had actually formed the specific intent required for premeditated murder,” according to the ruling.
Carrera was born in Mexico and came to the United States as a toddler, but was sent back to Mexico after about a year when she was 7 because she was “unstable,” the defendant's attorney in the first trial said.
Experts in the first trial said the defendant alternates between manic and passive phases and has a schizo-affective disorder, with one expert concluding she suffered from “altruistic filicide,” which led her to kill her daughter.
Carrera appeared “catatonic” when police and paramedics arrived following the drowning, according to trial testimony. She had swallowed a bottle of Seroquel pills in a suicide attempt, according to the testimony.
The prosecutor in the first trial argued the defendant would sometimes fake her mental illness symptoms to get out of trouble.