A mother struggling with severe postpartum depression leaves her two-week-old son unattended in the bathtub, where he drowns. She then drives to a nearby reservoir, weighs his body down with rocks, and tells multiple lies to law enforcement about what happened.
At her first murder trial, the mother - let's call her Heidi - has an attorney who fails to raise the issue of her mental state as a possible defense, despite the fact that Heidi was hospitalized just days after her son's death for depression, suicidal thoughts, and panic attacks. A female juror refuses to convict on the first-degree murder charge, resulting in a mistrial due to a hung jury.
The prosecution brings the case to trial again and this time convicts Heidi of second-degree murder. She receives a mandatory 50-year prison sentence.
Heidi serves nine years in prison before the state supreme court rules she is entitled to a new trial because her original trial counsel had failed to consider her mental state.
After ten months of freedom, however, Heidi pleads guilty to multiple acts of child endangerment. She is sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.
At sentencing, Heidi's attorney points out that in 29 countries around the world, when a mother who kills a child under the age of one can prove that her mental state was disturbed due to childbirth, the maximum penalty is manslaugher. Most of these countries limit the consequences to probation and counseling.
After sentencing, the judge says he will take the practically unprecedented step of writing a letter urging the parole board to consider Heidi's release. Even the prosecutor, in pursuit of her for so long, acknowledges that she is no longer a threat to public safety and says he will write a letter to the parole board, too.
In this almost unspeakably sad story, Heidi is Heidi Anfinson of Des Moines, who killed her young son Jacob in the third week of September in 1998 - right about the time my wife and I moved to Des Moines to start jobs there. Heidi was ELCA Lutheran, as we were, and about our age, so her case has always seemd quite close to home. Indeed, the older of our two sons was born in Des Moines and spent the first few weeks of his life there before we moved to Minnesota.
"There but for the grace of God go I," a Christian will sometimes say when showing mercy.
The criminal justice system, of course, has a very different point of departure. Yet there, too, the principal actors in this dark drama have struggled to find a proper response. Scott Rosenberg, the judge who sentenced Heidi Anfison on her plea agreement, put it this way:
"We often like to think of things in black and white. But often, it is the gray that is the truth."
What color will the Iowa Board of Parole see in Heidi Anfinson's case, I wonder - and when will it act?