Kaela Mehl had a mental disorder at the time she killed her daughter, most likely in an attempt to protect her, a forensic psychiatrist testified in a packed Victoria courtroom Thursday morning.
Mehl is charged with first degree murder in the death of 18-month-old Charlotte Cunningham. She has admitted to causing Charlotte’s death by feeding her the sleeping pill Zopiclone mixed in yogurt and smothering her. Mehl later overdosed from a potentially fatal dose of the drug.
Dr. Shabehram Lohrasbe took the stand after a defence lawyer’s brief opening statement.
“At the time Charlotte Cunningham died, Miss Mehl was in an abnormal mental state,” he testified. “I came to the opinion that at the time she did have a mental disorder.”
Lohrasbe, who was qualified by the judge as an expert witness, told the court that in many cases of filicide – killing one’s child – the parent commits either ‘altruistic’ filicide, or ‘spouse revenge’ filicide. Altruistic filicide, Lohrasbe said, can happen when a person in a time of extraordinary distress kills their child to protect them.
“It’s pretty clear that altruistic filicides are the (most common), particularly among females. The mom kills the child because she believes at the time, that doing that is the best possible option for the child to prevent pain and suffering,” he said.
“There are people who will kill their children as an act of vengeance against the partner they’re very angry at, ‘if I can’t have her you can’t’ … this happens to be the case far (more) often when men kill their children.”
Lohrasbe, who assessed Mehl once; 20 months after the child died; said there was an “overwhelming likelihood” this was altruistic filicide. However, he considered spouse revenge a possibility because of the turbulent custody battle between Mehl and her ex-husband, Daniel Cunningham, over their daughter.
Lohrasbe’s conservative estimate was that Mehl had “adjustment disorder,” which he described as when “we may be placed under so much stress that for a period of time we kind of go off the rails. Our emotions get out of line, ideas become increasingly unrealistic.”
The defence counsel asked him whether Mehl was able to comprehend right and wrong at the time she killed Charlotte.
“When people reach a point of suicidality, their perspective on the reality of things has become so distorted that, from an outsider’s perspective, it is very difficult to grasp their moral compass,” Lohrasbe said. “If you’re feeling utterly alone, that the system is being played against you, that powerful people with money can hire powerful lawyers that can get their way, you start moving away from (a) realistic perspective.”
Lohrasbe said the single meeting he had with Mehl was very emotional.
“At the time I was fearful she was going to have a panic attack when we were talking … Through much of the interview she pulled out Charlotte’s toys and grabbed them, clutched them to her chest.”
While Lohrasbe testified, Mehl cried loudly.
In his opening statement, defence lawyer Jeremy Mills told the jury that a murder conviction requires that Mehl be found guilty not only of causing the death of her daughter – a fact undisputed by both sides – but that in doing so, she had the “state of mind” to wilfully commit murder.
“You don’t need to decide if Kaela Mehl committed the act, because she has admitted it. For you, it is to try to determine Miss Mehl’s state of mind at the time she caused the death of Charlotte Cunningham,” Mills said to the jury, in a packed courtroom with 30-some people in the gallery. “If at the end of the day, you are not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Miss Mehl possessed the required state of mind at the time of the act, you should acquit Miss Mehl.”
The trial continues Friday.
Read Victoria News’ coverage of the Kaela Mehl murder trial