When a 9-year-old Parkville girl died yesterday from injuries she sustained in a Labor Day car crash in Double Rock Park, police charged her mother with murder - accusing her of deliberately running into a tree in an attempt to kill herself, her only child and their dog.
Lisa A. Dieter, 35, who survived the crash, was in fair condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital, guarded by Baltimore County police who expect to be able to arrest her today.
Her daughter, Alana Anne Dieter, who was supposed to start fourth grade yesterday morning at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday afternoon.
"It's very tragic," said Wilma Short, the school principal.
According to police, Lisa Dieter told investigators that she wanted to kill herself. But homicide detectives were trying yesterday to figure out why she wanted her daughter to die, too, said Cpl. Ron Brooks, a police spokesman.
Brooks said there was physical evidence supporting her statement: There were no skid marks to indicate Dieter had tried to brake her 1992 Buick Century before hitting a tree head-on near the 8200 block of Glen Road in Parkville about 9:30 a.m. Monday.
Neither she nor her daughter was wearing a seatbelt, he said.
Legal and mental health experts said most suicidal people don't kill loved ones. But while the circumstances of this case might seem to point to mental illness, lawyers said using that as a defense would be difficult.
"When you hear something like this, the first thought is that this person must be crazy," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "But just because your conduct is antisocial doesn't make you insane."
"While it may seem that the more bizarre a person's behavior is, the more likely it is that he or she is insane, that's not always the case," he said.
Dieter's relatives declined to comment yesterday, saying they were grieving and didn't wish to talk about the allegations.
The dog, a black German shepherd named Tabitha, survived and was being held at the county's Animal Control Center yesterday, authorities said.
Police planned to serve a warrant for Dieter's arrest once she is released from the hospital, Brooks said.
Court records show Dieter was divorced about a year and half ago. Her husband, Bernard W. Dieter Jr., did not contest the proceedings or the granting of custody of their only child to Lisa Dieter, according to court documents.
Neighbors said they were shocked by the news, saying they knew of nothing troubling going on in the woman's life. She worked part time, neighbors said. She recently began repainting Alana's bedroom, one neighbor said.
Their white cottage in the 7800 block of Bagley Ave. was empty yesterday. Two pastel bicycles lay on the driveway.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary School, in Baynesville off Loch Raven Boulevard near Joppa Road, Alana Dieter's classmates prayed for her and her mother during the school's opening morning prayer yesterday, Short said. A grief counselor will be at the school today to talk with parents and students.
There is no public record of Dieter being treated for depression or mental illness.
In Maryland, there is no way to find someone not guilty by reason of insanity - temporary or otherwise. A person can be found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, meaning the person is not punished for the crime, Warnken said. Other mentally ill defendants are found not competent to even stand trial, but both circumstances are rare in the state, he said.
"A lot of people don't show signs," said Lisa Hurka Covington, a suicide prevention advocate who heads the Towson-based Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids (SPEAK). "A suicidal person can be homicidal. It can go hand-in-hand.
"A lot of people have mixed feelings about this case. They're asking, `Why did she have to take her daughter too?' She has to live with the decision she made. Until all the facts come out, how can we judge? I don't know what's going in this woman's case," Hurka Covington said.
"But we have another child dead because of suicide. We need do more listening and educating in this area. It breaks my heart."