Lauren Dickason in the High Court. Photo: Pool/NZ Herald/George Heard

In rejecting the insanity defence, the jury found that Lauren Dickason was able to understand at the time she murdered her children that doing so was morally wrong. In rejecting the infanticide defence, the jury must have decided either that Dickason’s depression and anxiety were not a result of the birth of her children, or that she was well enough to be considered fully responsible for murdering them.  

However, at sentencing, it would be open to the Judge to find that Dickason would not have murdered her children if not for her depression and anxiety, or that her mental health problems played a very significant causal role, alongside the major life stressors she experienced in the months and days leading up to the murders. 

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If that is the view the judge takes of the facts, he will need to consider whether the life sentence normally imposed for murder is appropriate. When mental illness plays a very significant role in a murder, and the offender poses a low risk of reoffending, a finite sentence (a fixed number of years) can be imposed.

If the judge considers that a life sentence must be imposed, he will need to decide how many years Dickason must wait before she is eligible to apply for parole. That minimum period of imprisonment (MPI) must be at least 10 years. Some features of the murder mean that an MPI of at least 17 years must be considered: that there were three victims, that they were vulnerable because of their age, and that they were entitled to look to their mother for protection rather than harm all point towards a longer MPI. If the judge decides that the Crown has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Dickason planned the murders, and if the judge considers the method of death was particularly callous or brutal (keeping in mind the full spectrum of murders), these factors will also point towards an MPI of at least 17 years. 

The judge must also consider, however, whether an MPI of 17 years or more would be “manifestly unjust”. The same sorts of factors as are relevant to whether a life sentence should be imposed are also relevant here.  The judge may also take into account that Dickason did not mistreat her children until she murdered them and (rather less significantly) that she will serve her sentence in New Zealand, away from friends and family. 

Whatever MPI is imposed, it is important to remember that that is just the minimum period Dickason must serve before she is eligible to apply for parole. The parole board then decides whether she can be released without posing an undue risk to the community. She may not be released for many years after the MPI has been reached. Once released on parole, Dickason will be deported back to South Africa. 

The judge has ordered reports into Dickason’s current mental health status and treatment. He has the option of sentencing her to imprisonment but ordering that she be detained as a special patient in a hospital (likely Hillmorton Hospital, where she has been since the murders). She can be detained there as long as she requires in-patient psychiatric treatment to ensure her safety or the safety of others. When she is well enough, she will be transferred to prison to serve the rest of her sentence. 

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