South African woman Lauren Dickason, 42, has been found guilty of the murder of her three young daughters at their Timaru home in 2021. The dreadful chapter happened only a few weeks after the family had arrived in New Zealand. After four weeks of harrowing evidence during the trial at the Christchurch High Court, surveying both complex legal arguments and Dickason’s long history of mental health and fertility struggles, a majority jury decided the mother committed murder. Adam Burns reports.
Warning: This story contains content some readers may find distressing.
A jury has found Lauren Dickason murdered her daughters Karla, Maya and Liane on 16 September, 2021. The majority verdicts were revealed to the High Court at Christchurch on Wednesday, following more than 14 hours of deliberations.
The 42-year-old had pleaded not guilty to all three murder charges, her legal team mounting a defence based on insanity and infanticide. The prosecution said the mother killed her children out of “anger and resentment” and the need for control.
“You might think that it is hard to sit here and understand Mrs Dickason’s behaviour that night: ‘Why would a mother do this to her children- she must’ve been so unwell for that to have occurred.’ They are all natural reactions,” Crown prosecutor Andrew McRae said.
“However, while there was no doubt she was significantly unwell with depression, the Crown say she wasn’t so unwell that she has a medical defence available to her.”
Dickason’s lawyer Kerryn Beaton KC disagreed, explaining the woman was experiencing a severe depressive episode.
“Mothers don’t kill their children the way that Lauren did just because they’re angry, or resentful, or stressed or anxious. So the girls’ deaths have nothing to do with anger and resentment, and everything to do with what was clearly a severe mental illness.”
Beaton and fellow defence lawyer Anne Toohey appeared stunned as the verdicts were read to the court, before succumbing to tears.
In summing up the case earlier this week, Justice Cameron Mander said the issue between the Crown and the defence was whether Dickason’s disturbed mind was by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth, or by reason of any disorder resulting or arising from childbirth.
The defence argued the major depressive episode that Dickason was suffering not only caused her to think she had to take her own life, but take her children with her.
Beaton said the depressive episode was linked to Dickason’s post-partum depression, which her client never recovered from.
“This is the very kind of case that the law of infanticide was designed for.”
The jury has now decided that this was not the case.
‘Mom needs a minute’
Dickason and her husband Graham desperately wanted to start a family.
The jury heard during the first days of the trial how she endured 17 arduous rounds of IVF due to an inability to conceive naturally.
It was a journey shaken by heartbreak in January 2013, when they lost their first baby Sarah at 22 weeks, the painful tragedy resulting in two months of constant tears and severe mental struggles for Dickason.
But dreams of children would eventually become a reality. Liane arrived on 22 September 2014 and twins Karla and Maya would follow four years later, as the couple resorted to donor eggs.
By mid-September 2021, a mother with her back to the wall wanted to “give them back and start over”.
The reality of raising three children under five was a complication for someone like Dickason, according to the Crown.
“The defendant had a lifelong propensity towards anxiety and perfectionism, always demanding very high standards from herself and a tendency towards self-criticism for any actual, or perceived failure to meet those standards,” prosecutor Andrew McRae said, during the trial’s opening day.
It was these traits which were strongly at odds with the “unpredictable nature” of children and their behaviour, the court heard.
Dickason reported feeling like a “shaken bottle of coke, ready to explode” on the day she killed her children.
The defence, however, argued she was in the grip of a major depressive episode during this period, a direct consequence of postpartum depression.
A sequence of external factors – Covid-19, South Africa’s political and civil discord, a long-haul emigration, New Zealand’s immigration requirements – only fanned the flames.
Forensic psychiatrist Susan Hatters-Friedman told the court during her testimony that suicide and infanticide were “seriously concerning” risks of the illness.
She explained how such women in Dickason’s situation could adopt an altruistic belief – essentially, her babies were “better off in heaven with their mother” than alive and motherless in a “cruel and uncaring world”.
The strain of parenthood was laid bare during evidence, with the content of her phone pored over during the second week of the trial.
Online searches of how to cause child drug overdoses in the weeks leading up to the deaths were also revealed.
Furthermore, there was a one-minute 40-second Tik Tok clip, where a stressed American mother performs a poem describing the mental chaos of being a mother and the need for a break: “Mom needs a minute, she’s doing her best, as anxiety rises and tightens my chest, Mom needs a minute.” Dickason’s response to the video in July 2021 was: “Awesome xxx that’s exactly how I feel.”
Grieving father backtracks
During a three-hour police interview, Graham Dickason quietly tried to make sense of it all.
Timaru police detective Sam Hawker had the unenviable task of consulting Lauren Dickason’s husband only a few hours after he found his three daughters dead in their beds.
The police interview with the orthopaedic surgeon was the first piece of evidence the jury saw in the trial. Grainy video footage showed a shattered man sitting in the interview room, his posture pivoting from hands clasped to head-in-hands.
He recounted arriving home from a work dinner, first to find his wife in poor health. Horror followed.
Further background about his wife’s lengthy mental health struggles and more recent obstacles during Covid-19 were highlighted, conceding his wife was “not in a good place”.
But as meticulous and organised as Lauren was, he said she was “not nurturing” after Hawker asked to describe her characteristics as a mother.
“She was the carer always. She verbalised on multiple occasions that she doesn’t seem to think she’s a good mother. And I’ve always reassured her, maybe that was a mistake.
“I just never thought she could do something like this.”
Nearly two years later, Dickason shared his perspective for the jury.
The first witness in the trial, the 46-year-old’s testimony was inevitably one the more intriguing phases of the first week.
The woman he married 17 years prior, was now in a courtroom in New Zealand, charged with the murder of their three daughters. He did not travel to New Zealand for proceedings, opting to remain in South Africa having returned home following the event.
Speaking through the night via audio-visual link from Pretoria to align with New Zealand, he touched on certain factors with the prosecution, including how she was prone to periods where she was “quieter and reserved”.
“This was different to prior periods,” he said.
She was also frustrated that his start date at Timaru Hospital had been brought forward.
He appeared calm and level-headed throughout his testimony. But his wife’s lawyers probed the nurturing comment that he made to police.
“Was that something that you said in the worst of circumstances that perhaps isn’t correct?” defence lawyer Anne Toohey asked.
Dickason admitted it was a “very confusing moment in my life”, suggesting how recent struggles may have clouded his feelings.
In court, the defendant poignantly looked up at her husband on screen, as he said that despite tiredness and frustrations, there was “no question in his mind” that she loved her children.
It was this line of reasoning, the defence zeroed in on, attributing the crime to circumstances out of the mother’s control.
The couple also corresponded by letters, the husband still at a loss to make sense of it all.
‘Devil on her shoulder’
The Dickasons were seemingly a devout Christian family before they moved to New Zealand. The court heard about regular church attendance and the enrolment of the girls in Christian schooling.
By September 2021, Lauren Dickason felt what she later told a forensic psychiatrist was a demonic presence.
From the outset of the trial, Justice Cameron Mander explained the exchange between a disease of the mind and a commonly accepted sense of right and wrong would be at the heart of a case of insanity.
“The nixed element of insanity is likely to be an issue, that is whether this disease of the mind caused Mrs Dickason, at the time, to be incapable of knowing her actions were morally wrong, having regard to commonly accepted standards of right and wrong,” he told the jury on the opening day.
The jury heard earlier during the trial’s second week how the family was welcomed with open arms by the local Timaru community.
Grant Phillips, who was the acting principal and teacher at Timaru Christian School in 2021, had been in contact with the family when they were still in South Africa. He helped enrol Liane into Timaru Christian School.
Phillips and his wife visited the family after they had arrived in the town, gifting them a food parcel.
A fellow expat from South Africa, Phillips struggled to contain his emotions in court, the whole episode clearly an upsetting matter to recall to the jury.
Other witnesses who encountered the family when in Timaru also became teary on the stand, illustrating how traumatic it had all been for members of the community.
The court heard how Phillips, his wife and Lauren shared a prayer together, before Graham arrived home from work. It was a moment where Lauren felt detached.
“I felt no connection with God and my surroundings, I felt none,” she told forensic psychiatrist Dr Ghazi Metoui.
Forensic psychiatrist Dr Susan Hatters-Friedman, who interviewed Dickason several times, described terrifying visions she had in the month before she killed the girls.
“She told me that it felt like a devil on her shoulder with self-doubt in the weeks prior to the alleged offending.”
Metoui, who spent a total of 20 hours with Dickason from December 2021, was also told about the same demonic presence, the court heard.
“I feel like a seed was planted that day,” she reported to Metoui.
Another expert witness, Dr Justin Barry-Walsh, believed the mother was in the grips of rapidly worsening depression and overwhelmed by a “negative and nihilistic worldview”. He said she believed killing the children “seemed right” and was “morally correct” at the time.
The jury, however, did not.
Dickason will be detained in hospital awaiting assessment, before a sentencing date is finalised.