Limited release for convicted mother

She was committed for her daughter's death in 2002 case

December 07, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN REPORTER

A woman who pleaded guilty to killing her daughter but was found not criminally responsible because of mental illness was granted conditional release yesterday from a psychiatric hospital, five years after she crashed her car in a Baltimore County park in an attempt to kill herself and her only child.

Lisa A. Dieter wept softly as Baltimore County Circuit Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts announced her decision, which followed hours of private negotiations with Dieter's lawyer, the county prosecutor who handled the 2002 murder case against her and an attorney for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The judge agreed to release Dieter to a transitional psychiatric rehabilitation program for five years. The order also requires, among other things, that the 40-year-old woman submit to regular blood tests to determine whether she is taking her medication in the prescribed doses.

"Her transformation over the past five years has been tremendous," defense attorney Joseph Murtha said. "She went from a person who had no desire to live to someone who has a real passion for life. ... She has put herself in the position where she, hopefully, will be living independently in the not-too-distant future."

Dieter pleaded guilty in March 2003 to first-degree murder in the death of her 9-year-old daughter, Alana Anne Dieter, who was about to start fourth grade at Immaculate Heart of Mary School. She died Sept. 3, 2002, a day after the car crash in Double Rock Park.

Dieter told detectives in detail of her plans to kill herself and her daughter.

The night before the crash, Dieter twice turned on the gas stove burners in her Parkville home and used a cigarette lighter to try to cause an explosion, she said.

When that didn't work, she loaded her daughter and their black German shepherd into her Buick Century, drove to the park and told her daughter to take off her seatbelt before she crashed her car into a tree, according to court records.

After an evaluation, doctors at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the state's maximum-security forensic psychiatric hospital, determined that Dieter was not criminally responsible for her daughter's death, because of severe depression.

County prosecutors did not dispute the findings, and Dieter was committed to the state hospital in Jessup.

Since then, Dieter has progressed through the hospital's clinical programming and gradually been granted more "privileges," court records show.

In July, the hospital's clinical forensic review board decided to allow her unsupervised overnight visits with her family, unsupervised job training and work trips, and unescorted walks around the hospital and its grounds, according to court documents.

In September, Ballou-Watts scheduled a hearing to consider Dieter's request for conditional release and requested an updated evaluation from the doctors at Clifton T. Perkins.

That report was offered as evidence at yesterday's hearing but was sealed. Lawyers on both sides, however, said the medical staff had determined that Dieter was eligible for conditional release because she is no longer a threat to herself or others.

At the September hearing, David E. Wagner, an attorney for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, outlined a series of steps that Dieter and her family would be required to follow in preparation for her eventual release.

Murtha asked yesterday that Dieter be released to stay with her mother, a request that sparked concern by prosecutors and the woman's doctors at Perkins.

Stephen Roscher, an assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case against Dieter in 2002, said he thought that supervised transitional housing would offer a more independent evaluation of Dieter's progress.

The lawyers compromised and agreed to release Dieter to a residential program in Essex.

Although the specific program has not been selected, Murtha said it will probably be a residential facility staffed by mental health workers who help patients "making the transition from an institution back into the everyday world."

With a fistful of tissues and speaking in a voice that was barely audible, Dieter agreed in court to voluntarily commit herself to Perkins until she is assigned to a program.

Dieter's relatives declined to comment after the hearing.

Murtha, her lawyer, said the move to supervised housing will be an important step in his client's healing.

"Much of the past five years for her were spent learning to deal with the loss of her daughter and putting her in a position where she didn't want to take her own life," he said. "She's now at the point where she recognizes the tragedy she was involved in but can also recognize the need to move on."

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