Just after midnight, May 10, 2003— the day before Mother’s Day — a call came in to a 911 center in northeast Texas. The call began with a woman’s voice, very calm, saying, “I’ve killed my boys.”
Police and first responders soon arrived at the site where the call came from, a three-bedroom home just outside the small town of New Chapel Hill belonging to Deanna and Keith Laney. Keith, still in his nightclothes, appeared to have no idea why the police were there.
In a rock garden in the front yard, police noticed blood spatter.
They found Deanna in a wooded area about 100 yards away from the house, still talking on the phone to the 911 dispatcher. She was barefoot, dressed in white pajamas splashed with blood.
She told police where they could find the bodies of her sons Luke, 6, and Joshua, 8, but would not take them there herself.
Her directions led them behind a swing; there, they found Luke and Joshua’s bodies, dressed only in their underwear. They had both suffered severe, crushing head wounds.
Inside the Laney’s tidy home, first responders found their youngest son, Aaron, only 14 months old, bloodied but still alive, in his crib. A pillow had been placed over his face. They immediately rushed him to the nearest hospital, where he was flown to Children’s Medical Center of Dallas.
Under questioning, Keith said he had no idea what had happened, or why. He said he was awakened earlier that night when he heard Aaron cry out. He went to Aaron’s room, he said, and saw his wife standing over the crib. “Everything’s OK,” Deanna told him, so he went back to bed.
But everything was not OK. The evidence was clear: Deanna had beaten her sons’ heads in with rocks, killing two of them and nearly killing one. When asked why she did it, she said that God had told her to.
Not much is known about Deanna before that horrific May night. She was a devout member of the First Assembly of God, a Pentacostal church where her brother-in-law was the pastor. She sang in the choir there. Church members described the Laney family as “very stable and loving,” and Deanna had no history of mental illness.
However, outside of church, the Laneys appeared to have lived a rather isolated life. They lived in a rural area, on a five-acre plot of land, so there were no close neighbors. Deanna also homeschooled her two older boys, which further isolated them. So if Deanna had begun showing signs of a serious mental illness, no one outside of her immediate family would have known — and Keith said he had no idea his wife was spiraling into severe, violent delusions and hallucinations.
The only person who noticed anything off about her was her sister, Pam Sepmoree, who said Deanna had been acting strangely in the days leading up to the murders — losing weight, eating less, and reading her Bible more.
After her arrest, Deanna acted “erratically” in her jail cell, according to Smith County Sheriff J. B. Smith. “She goes from a fetal position of crying, to walking around the cell singing gospel music. She stops and prays, then she goes into a crying hysteria,” Smith said. “She all of a sudden realizes what she’s done, then she’ll go into a flatline, blank stare.”
She had to be put on suicide watch until she could be sent to a psychiatric facility for a mental examination.
Once there, she calmly described what she had done. She was smiling, believing that because she had obeyed God, her boys would be resurrected. However, since she believed she hadn’t carried out God’s orders perfectly — because Aaron had survived — she lapped up water from the floor and drank from a toilet bowl.
During her evaluation, she revealed more of her delusions. God had begun speaking to her, she believed, demanding that she kill her children to prove her faith in Him — much like He had done to Abraham. Deanna struggled with this — despite her deep devotion to her god, she loved her sons and did not want to harm them. But, she explained, God began to get more and more impatient with her, demanding she kill her sons by ever more violent means.
She kept her delusions secret from everyone, believing herself to be like Mary keeping her pregnancy secret. She also began identifying with Andrea Yates (who, only two years earlier, had killed her children in a religious delusion), believing the two of them would work together as witnesses when the world ended.
Deanna said she struggled between obeying God and “selfishly” keeping her sons alive for some time. Then one day she tripped over a rock in her yard. She felt this was a sign from God that this was how she had to sacrifice her sons.
She described how just before midnight on the night of May 9, she was awakened by God. “That feeling hit me. It’s time. It’s time,” she told her psychiatrists.
She slipped out of her bed quietly, so as not to wake Keith. She first went into baby Aaron’s room, took him from his crib, and began hitting him in the head with a large rock she had stashed in the room earlier. When Aaron cried out, she put him back in the crib and put a pillow over his head to muffle his cries. That’s when Keith came into the room, and she told him that everything was OK.
After that, she woke the two older boys and led them out to the rock garden, where she told them to lie down. She struck Luke in the head with a large rock at least eight times before dragging his body behind a swing and placing the rock on top of him to stop his breathing. She said that at that point, she told God that she couldn’t do anything more to her son. She said that at that exact moment, she saw a lightning flash, and took it as a sign from God that Luke was now dead.
She then returned to the rock garden and did the same to Joshua. When he began to struggle against her, she kneeled on his arms and continued striking him until he stopped fighting.
When she was done, she placed the call to 911.
Thankfully, doctors were able to save Aaron’s life. However, he suffered severe brain damage, losing his sight and ability to live independently.
In late March 2004, Laney stood trial in Tyler County, Texas, facing two capital murder charges and one charge of aggravated assault.
She pled not guilty by reason of insanity — a difficult strategy, particularly in Texas. Nationally, only about 1 percent of criminal defendants take this plea, and of those, only about a quarter of them are successful. In addition, Texas has some of the strictest qualifications for an insanity defense. Known as the M’Naghten Rule, defendants must prove both that they have a mental disease or defect and that they could not tell right from wrong at the time of the crime.
Deanna, now under mental-health care and taking medication, cried through most of the six-day trial. She did not take the stand. When the graphic, bloody photos of the crime scene and her sons’ bodies were presented, she would not look at them.
Five psychiatrists, including Drs. Phillip Resnick and Park Dietz, testified about Deanna’s mental state. Resnick and Dietz both worked on the Yates trial, though in that trial, Dietz had testified that Yates did in fact know right from wrong when she committed her crimes. In this trial, however, he testified that Deanna did not know right from wrong when she killed her children.
Several of these experts testified that they believed Deanna had been suffering from undiagnosed mental illness for the past three years. She had disclosed to her psychiatrists that years earlier, she had hallucinated the smell of brimstone — which she took as a sign of the devil — and saw signs in her infants’ bowel movements. She had told no one of these hallucinations. And when she did begin telling her congregation that she was hearing God speak to her and that the end of the world was coming, no one questioned her mental state, since those beliefs were an accepted part of their religion.
With both criteria of the M’Naughten rule satisfied, Deanna was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Kerrville mental hospital, alongside Andrea Yates, for an undetermined amount of time.
In 2008, Keith Laney divorced Deanna and later remarried.
In 2012, after eight years, four of her psychologists testified that there was no reason to keep her behind bars, saying she was no longer a threat to herself or others. She was released on the conditions that she continue taking her medications as prescribed, and to have no contact with minors, along with other conditions.