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Insanity or vengeance?

Even her attorneys acknowledge Marilyn Lemak ended the lives of her three young children on a late-winter day nearly three years ago, doping them with prescription drugs and suffocating them with her hands. So her murder trial comes down to this: Was Lemak legally insane, or should she be held criminally responsible for the slayings?

Jury selection in the case concluded earlier today, and opening statements by lawyers on both sides began this afternoon.

Prosecutors plan to seize on evidence they believe demonstrates that the 44-year-old's thinking was sharp the day she killed the children. They'll say Lemak was going through a drawn-out divorce, plotted a crime meant to spite her husband, tried to conceal evidence and then showed remorse. Her ex-husband will be their first witness.

The challenge for defense attorneys will be to use many of the same facts in the service of a different theory: that Lemak's mental state collapsed along with her 14-year marriage to emergency-room physician David Lemak.

Defense attorneys will try to harness the horror of her acts--methodically killing her own children--to demonstrate how sick she was when she sedated and smothered Nicholas, 7, Emily, 6, and Thomas, 3.

Lemak reverted to her maiden name of Morrissey as part of a divorce settlement, but she still is referred to in criminal court as Marilyn Lemak.

If the jury finds her not guilty by reason of insanity, Lemak will likely spend years in a mental institution. A verdict of guilty or guilty but mentally ill could send her to prison for life or to Death Row.

Jurors will be asked to sift through some facts that are so open to interpretation that both sides likely will spin them to support their case. How, for instance, does one interpret Lemak's conversation with a 911 dispatcher, the morning she awoke to find her children dead and her apparent suicide attempt botched?

"My three kids are dead, and I ... I wanted to be dead too but it didn't work," she told the dispatcher.

"How did you do this, what happened?" the dispatcher asked.

"My husband didn't want us anymore," she replied. When told that police and paramedics were coming, Lemak said, "My dogs are barking. The dogs are really nice. ... They're old, and they are real nice. And one little cat. Don't let 'em let the cat run out."

On the master bedroom dresser, police found a picture of David Lemak and his new girlfriend, with a bloody X-acto knife stuck through the chest of his image. Is that evidence of a vengeful wife furious at her estranged husband, or a sign that she had slipped into psychosis?

Other elements of the crime are equally ambiguous. Prosecutors point to the methodical way she killed the children as evidence of her culpability. The same facts convince the defense of her insanity.

Authorities say Emily and Thomas were killed while Nicholas played downstairs. After Lemak came downstairs, "she told [Nicholas] that Emily and Thomas would not be joining them for dinner," Naperville Police Detective Mike Cross said at an inquest into the children's deaths, based on an interview of Lemak at Naperville's Edward Hospital shortly after her arrest.

"She then gave him a bagel [and] spread it with crunchy peanut butter," Cross said, describing how Lemak sprinkled it with crushed tablets of the anti-anxiety tranquilizer Ativan, which physicians had prescribed to the part-time surgical nurse.

DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett also has pointed to statements Lemak made to police and paramedics as proof that she couldn't wait to get the guilt off her chest. To the defense, authorities exploited the ramblings of a deranged woman.

Focus on scorn

Prosecutors will concentrate on evidence that supports their revenge-of-a-woman-scorned theory.

In the weeks leading up to the killings, authorities have said, Marilyn Lemak began to outwardly display her anger, berating her husband as a liar and a cheat in handwritten notes. After his wife twice filed for divorce and sought to kick him out of the house, David Lemak moved to a rented home down the street and later began dating a nurse at Hinsdale Hospital, where he worked.

Once she discovered that relationship, Marilyn Lemak allegedly made harassing phone calls to the girlfriend. One night before her husband moved out when she suspected he was with the woman, Lemak bolted all the doors, shuttered the windows and ripped out the doorbell, her friends and authorities have said.

Police and prosecutors believe two things triggered the slayings: Lemak saw her husband and girlfriend together March 3, the day before the killings, and David Lemak was to have the children for a court-ordered visit March 5.

Lemak family physician Robert Hubbard testified in a pretrial hearing that Marilyn Lemak told him after the slayings that "she had seen her husband with his girlfriend the prior day and realized she and her children were no longer the most important thing in his life."

Authorities say Lemak wanted to hurt her estranged husband in the worst way imaginable. They say Lemak wanted him to find the bodies of the children, along with his dead wife, when he arrived to pick them up for the visit.

On March 4, Lemak called the family's longtime cleaning lady and told her not to come that day, investigators say, contending she was plotting to be alone with her children.

They also point to indications that she concealed evidence. Several months after the killings, detectives found a bottle of the tranquilizer she had used to dope the children hidden behind an intercom box in the bathroom wall.

As another indication that Lemak knew the criminality of her actions, prosecutors are expected to point out the first thing she told her mother in the hospital the night after the bodies were found: "I'm sorry."

A woman unhinged

Her defense attorneys will argue that Lemak's actions were not those of a bitter wife, but of a woman unhinged from society's norms. "Everyone in the world knows she committed the physical acts," lead attorney John Donahue said outside an October 1999 court hearing. "But that's not the issue."

Among his potential arguments is the scene that police and paramedics found inside the family's home.

Police testified that they discovered a crumpled, blood-spattered wedding dress on the bathroom floor. Lemak had tucked the children in bed before downing an overdose of the same sedative.

Waking the next morning to discover she was still alive, Lemak slashed her wrists before calling 911, authorities say. To the defense, it was the culmination of a years-long descent into serious mental illness and, ultimately, insanity.

Turning to family

At the October 1999 court hearing, Lemak's father said his daughter first divulged her problems to her family less than a month before the slayings. Prior to a Valentine's Day dinner not attended by her husband, Lemak broke down sobbing and acknowledged taking anti-depressants, her father testified. When he saw his daughter in the hospital after surgeons treated her self-inflicted wounds, he said her voice was weak and childlike.

Her attorneys are expected to use a number of mental-health experts to buttress their insanity defense. Dr. Arden Barnett, a psychiatrist who examined Lemak at Edward Hospital, said at the same 1999 hearing that he believed Lemak was suffering from major depression, a clinical mental-health diagnosis. During a two-hour interview with Lemak, Barnett testified, she spoke in a flat tone and had trouble making eye contact, but began hyperventilating when the subject of the children came up.

Marilyn Morrissey was born May 30, 1957, to Carol and William Morrissey, an accountant with People's Gas. After graduating from Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park in 1974, she enrolled in Moraine Valley Community College and obtained a certificate in operating room technology in 1977.

While working at Little Company of Mary Hospital in 1982, she started classes at Rush College of Nursing on the West Side. During the spring of her senior year in 1984, classmates said, she met a medical student named David Lemak.

The couple began dating and got married in September 1985.

Nicholas was born in 1991, Emily on Christmas Eve the next year, Thomas in 1995.

Lemak sometimes seemed to many neighborhood moms and children to be one of the kids: splashing in a wading pool with the little ones, crouching to chat with visiting youngsters or elaborately decorating her house on Halloween.

She taught Sunday school at a local Unitarian church or could be found in her own home helping children organize their games, getting down on her hands and knees and meeting them at eye level.

By 1995, family members have said, she was struggling with depression. Two years later, she filed for divorce the first time, but changed her mind.

Divorce proceedings

The second divorce proceedings, both their divorce attorneys have said, were relatively amicable, until Lemak discovered that her estranged husband had begun dating.

These days, she splits her time between an isolation cell she requested for herself and Courtroom 4000 in the DuPage County Judicial Center.

At the conclusion of her trial, which is expected to last at least through the holidays and perhaps into the new year, jurors will be given two verdict forms. One will ask whether Lemak is guilty, guilty but mentally ill, or not guilty. Jurors would fill out the second form--which asks if she was insane--only if she is found not guilty.

If she is found guilty or guilty but mentally ill, Judge George Bakalis will choose whether to sentence her to death or life in state prison.

If found not guilty by reason of insanity, Lemak would be sent to a secure mental institution where she might live out the rest of her life; she could be released from such a facility if a judge saw fit to do so.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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