The New Zealand trial of murder-convicted South African woman, Lauren Dickason, 42, has cast a light on the importance of identifying mental health in the pursuit of criminal justice and also given a few pointers on how an efficient system works, according to Professor Nirmala Gopal.
The Acting Director of Teaching and Learning at University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) College of Humanities said the outcome was not influenced by the public or the media, but instead, Dickason’s mental health and context were prioritised.
The five-week trial at Christchurch High Court, presided over by Justice Cameron Mander, encompassed the mental state of Dickason at the time she murdered her three daughters, six-year-old Liané, and two-year-old twins Maya and Karla, and the years leading up to that fatal moment on September 16, 2021.
With the trial on full display for the world to see, the subject of postpartum depression and mental health was at the forefront, as the prosecution and defence brought forward expert witnesses to testify to their narratives.
The prosecution believed Dickason acted with intent, while her defence team advocated for the fact that she was highly depressed and in a delusional state at the time of the murders.
The court heard about Dickason’s horrific journey to motherhood, which included 17 rounds of in vitro fertilisation and the death of one baby girl named Sarah, who she and her husband Graham lost before the three girls could be born.
The court also heard how she strangled her daughters with cable ties at first and then cut them off their necks and used a pillow to smother them to death.
Dickason was eventually found guilty by 11 out of 12 jurors on August 16, 2023, less than two years after the crime was committed. The trial began on July 17, 2023.
She is currently held at Hillmorton Mental Health Hospital and will be sentenced in February, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Lauren also has a support base from women across the world who rallied behind her with support for her mental health.
Given the nature of the trial revolved around her mental state, gathering evidence was not a clean cut process and required lots of input from psychologists and postpartum depression experts like Dr Susan Hatters-Friedman.
The evidence deduced was based on interviews with Dickason, instead of DNA based or witness testimonies that would usually be presented in a murder trial.
Regardless of this, the New Zealand justice system moved expeditiously and with intent, according to many South Africans, including Gopal.
“The evidence in the case was collected with a high level of meticulousness and promptness. This allowed the court to make a fair and informed adjudication of the criminal charges.
“The importance of collecting even the smallest pieces of evidence was evident, as it played a significant role in the court's decision-making process.
“In their judgment, the court considered the contextual factors surrounding the case. The process appeared to be robust and transparent, despite the case being of public interest,” Gopal said.
After Dickason was convicted, IOL published several articles on the outcome of the case and the process that would unfold before she is sentenced for the triple murder.
Many South Africans also praised the New Zealand justice system for its efficiency and professionalism, according to the comments section of the story.
One person made specific mention of the delays in the Timothy Omotoso rape case, in which the Nigerian senior pastor at Jesus Dominion International Church in Durban is accused of raping more than 10 women.
“My heart breaks for [the] family … wish SA judicial system could take lessons on how to finalise cases, closure for all instead of 5 to 10 years and no trial even started ... cases just keep getting remanded and remanded,” said Charmaine Pillay.
Thembinkosi Ndaba said: "At least there's still law in that country."
"Trial took just over 4 weeks. Beautiful. Not what is done here. Look at this Omotoso trial dragging for so long. He was arrested in his teenage years, now a pensioner; his victims even married now, still no verdict," said Nkosazana Radebe.
Professor Gopal said another crucial lesson to be extracted from the case was the outlook of mental health in the criminal justice system.
In South Africa there is a concern about the ability of courts to adequately handle cases involving mental illness and its impact on criminal activities, the UKZN alumni explained.
She said it was suggested that courts acquire a criminologist and a psychologist to confer with judges and magistrates on cases where assistance may be required, which could prompt the appropriate legal responses.
“Upon visiting correctional facilities, it has been observed that a significant number of inmates suffer from serious mental health issues that were probably not considered during their sentencing or court outcome,” Gopal said.
“It is crucial for courts to consider the psychological nature of those charged with criminal acts, in addition to legal principles.”