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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Judy Pickens: Appeals Court Affirms Munchausen by Proxy Murder Conviction

Posted By on Tue, Jan 25, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Judy Pickens' conviction for murder stands.
  • Judy Pickens' conviction for murder stands.
In August 2009, a jury found Judy Pickens guilty of killing her four-year-old son, Mikal, by giving him a fatal dose of the drug Clonidine. The prosecution's expert testified that Pickens had a highly unusual mental disorder called Munchausen by Proxy -- which caused her to make her son ill intentionally in order to get attention or appear heroic.

Now that conviction -- and the controversial expert testimony -- has been upheld by the Missouri Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel in the court's eastern division held today in a unanimous opinion that the prosecution did not err by introducing testimony about Munchausen by Proxy.

The RFT's Kristen Hinman wrote a feature story about Pickens' case in 2009. Pickens was also accused of sickening her six-year-old daughter with Clonidine, although the girl survived.
At issue in Pickens' appeal was the testimony of Dr. Michael Armour, a forensic psychologist. He explained the Munchausen by Proxy in testimony to the jury, admitting it was controversial but not in the fact it existed so much as in trying to prove it applied to particular cases. He never testified that he'd diagnosed Pickens with Munchausen by Proxy -- but he did answer hypothetical questions about the disorder.

The jury ultimately found Pickens guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree assault, two counts of child abuse and two counts of "armed criminal action." She was sentenced to consecutive terms of life in prison.

In a detailed, 40-page opinion, attached here, the appellate judges found that not only is the disorder a "recognized diagnosis," but that even if the trial judge erred in allowing testimony on that subject, it was not the only thing that led to the jury's decision -- a necessary component to overturn the conviction on the merits of the expert's testimony alone.

"While proof of the defendant's guilt was entirely circumstantial, the circumstances were compelling," the judges write. "Because the evidence of the defendant's guilt was very strong, any error in the admission of Dr. Armour's testimony was harmless."

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