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Mother Convicted of Murdering Baby : Killing Spurs Debate on Postpartum Depression

May 10, 1987|MAUD S. BEELMAN | Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In the 18 months since his wife was imprisoned for murdering their infant son, Glenn Comitz has campaigned almost obsessively to free her, and to educate others about postpartum depression, the phenomenon he blames for the baby's death and the dismantling of his family.

His mission has taken him across the country for appearances on television and radio talk shows and speeches to nurses' organizations and other groups.

Comitz, who lives with the couple's 7-year-old daughter, Nicole, in nearby Osceola Mills, says that his wife has been victimized by an uninformed public and by the legal and medical professions.

That and Comitz's persistence have attracted the attention of legal and psychological researchers at Penn State University, who on May 28 will gather scholars from the United States and Great Britain for a conference on childbirth-related mental disorders and criminal accountability.

Little-Known Studies

Research on postpartum disorders has stayed within "a rather narrow circuit of specialists" and is not known to even by many members of the professions directly involved, said Juris Draguns, a Penn State psychology professor who was a consultant in the Comitz case and in a similar case in West Virginia.

Postpartum depression is a catch-all name for a variety of mental illnesses that can afflict a new mother. These range from depression to psychosis, according to Dr. James A. Hamilton, a retired psychiatrist and Stanford University professor who has been studying such disorders for 32 years.

Perhaps 50% of all women suffer from what Hamilton calls "practically normal" and temporary baby blues, but this is not part of the syndrome, said Hamilton, who will be at the conference.

A new mother's chance of developing a serious psychological illness--severe depression or loss of touch with reality that requires hospitalization--is about 1 in 1,000, Hamilton said research has shown.

If a woman suffers postpartum depression once, the chance of recurrence with a second birth rises to 1 in 3 or 1 in 4, said Hamilton, who belongs to the Marce Society, a 7-year-old international organization of researchers of postpartum disorders.

History of Depression

Sharon Comitz was hospitalized for depression after Nicole was born, her husband said. The only advice the couple was given was to wait five years before they had another baby, and they did, he said.

Researchers disagree over whether childbirth simply triggers a latent mental problem or actually causes depression or psychosis.

Hamilton maintains that physical and hormonal changes that take place in every new mother can lead to postpartum disorders in an otherwise healthy woman. With proper care, he says, full recovery is possible in up to 90% of such cases.

Daniel Katkin, professor and program head of Penn State's administration of justice department, said he hoped the conference would help to make lawmakers and judges aware of the problem.

Speakers at the conference are to include attorneys--some of them from the Comitz case--psychiatrists and other doctors, the head of a Philadelphia postpartum self-help group and a state legislator.

Laws should be changed or re-interpreted, Katkin said, to permit lighter sentences in cases of infanticide "where there's powerful evidence of postpartum disorders."

Sharon Comitz, 29, is serving 8 to 20 years in a women's prison in Muncy, Pa., for killing her month-old son, Garret, by dropping him into a mountain stream near Philipsburg in January, 1985.

Sentence Being Appealed

She pleaded "guilty but mentally ill" to a charge of third-degree murder the following June. Her husband and lawyers say that her mental condition should have prompted a lighter sentence. (The maximum penalty was 10 to 20 years.) She is appealing her sentence to Pennsylvania Superior Court.

"We are dealing with a type of mental illness that men can't get, and you come into a legal system that's sort of dominated by men and they . . . don't empathize with it," Katkin said. "They can't imagine themselves in the situation."

Comitz said that those connected with his wife's case refused to try to understand.

"I could tell just from the disposition of all the men involved in the investigation of my wife. All those men are married, with women that are just as capable of having kids and getting this illness as my wife, but they took the air that, 'Ah, gee, it could never happen to my wife,' " Comitz said.

Centre County District Atty. Ray Gricar, who prosecuted Comitz, said: "It is not my position that people don't suffer from postpartum depression."

Prosecutor Stands Pat

Sharon Comitz, he said, "is not a legitimate example of postpartum depression. All the evidence indicates she knew what she was doing at the time."

He said that she had very little time to travel the route that witnesses said she did, dump her baby from a bridge and then return to a nearby shopping center where she reported the infant kidnaped. Such a thing "had to be done not only by a rational person, but it would almost have to be done with some forethought," Gricar said.

"I think she's the wrong person to be carrying the banner in this crusade. She really doesn't do the cause justice." He maintains that the sentence was appropriate.

In his brief opposing the appeal, he argues that if the state Legislature had intended mitigated sentences for those who plead "guilty but mentally ill," it would have said so in sentencing guidelines issued when the plea was established in 1983.

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