By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal yesterday reversed the first-degree murder conviction of a woman who killed her 6-week-old baby by placing her in a microwave oven and turning on the power.
“This is an excruciatingly tragic case,” Acting Presiding Justice Elana Duarte said at the outset of her 72-page opinion in the case of Ka Yang who, on March 17, 2011, caused the death of her infant, Mirabelle Thao-Lo.
Yang insisted she had been experiencing an epileptic seizure when the event occurred and had no cognizance of it, but jurors rejected the defense, accepting the prosecution’s theory that Yang acted consciously, as the result of postpartum psychosis.
The defendant was sentenced on Dec. 18, 2015 to 26 years to life in prison.
“We conclude the trial court abused its discretion by allowing expert testimony regarding postpartum mental disorders without sufficient factual basis and by subsequently admitting into evidence defendant’s psychological records not directly related to any mental condition she had put at issue. Because we cannot conclude these errors were harmless when considered together, we reverse the judgment in its entirety.”
Prosecution testimony on postpartum mental disorders was given by Dr. Angela Vickers, Mirabelle’s pediatrician. The testimony, according to the prosecutor in arguing for its admission, provided a “logical explanation” for the killing.
The Office of Attorney General argued on appeal that the testimony that Yang had symptoms of postpartum psychosis was relevant to prove the defendant’s intent and motive. Duarte indicated agreement with Yang’s attorney on appeal “that the testimony lacked sufficient factual basis.”
She noted that paramedics and law enforcement officers who questioned Yang—hearing her account of having experienced an epileptic seizure—found no indications of disorientation.
Although “there was some limited evidence of hallucinations and delusions experienced by defendant around the time of the killing,” it lacked significant probative value, the jurist said. “Viewed as a whole, the prosecution’s purported evidence of undiagnosed postpartum psychosis was weak and speculative,” Duarte declared.
The testimony should have been excluded, she said, because it “was substantially more prejudicial than probative, due to its very limited foundation and its tendency to mislead the jury.”
Yang’s psychological records, obtained by the prosecution, were used in cross-examining Dr. Phillip Resnick, a psychiatrist, who testified for the defense.
“The Attorney General argues the prosecution was broadly entitled to rebut defendant’s unconsciousness defense with evidence of her mental condition. But we must liberally construe the psychotherapist-patient privilege in defendant’s favor and narrowly construe the patient-litigant exception to the privilege….Accordingly, we construe defendant’s unconsciousness defense as waiving her psychotherapist privilege only for records narrowly and directly related to the specific issue of her consciousness.”
“Pursuant to that waiver and by way of hypothetical example, the People were entitled to any psychological record stating defendant remembered killing Mirabelle, defendant previously claimed unconsciousness, or defendant was diagnosed with some kind of pathological compulsion to assert unconsciousness whenever confronted with her misconduct. Such records would be directly related to the narrow issue of any mental (rather than medical) component of defendant’s consciousness.”
The records used in cross-examining Resnick, Duarte said, “were only indirectly relevant, if at all, to the issue of defendant’s consciousness,” rendering the use of them, the later admission of them into evidence, and reference to them in argument to the jury error.
She remarked that the errors cannot be viewed as harmless because “the defense of unconsciousness was supported and could have been accepted by the jury absent the errors we have described.”
The case is People v. Yang, C080978.
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