When a mother is tried for murder: The case of Linda Woo

Three years ago, Linda Woo, then 39, woke her two children in the middle of the night, wrapped them in blankets, and put them in a borrowed Subaru Outback with their stuffed animals. She placed a lit barbecue grill on the front seat. A family friend found the trio huddled in the backseat in the morning. Woo and her 4-year-old son were groggy, but alive. However, her daughter, 3-year-old Olive Woo Murphy, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the charcoal fumes.

At the time, I wrote a column in which I noted that Olive had been my daughter's preschool playmate. I interviewed psychologists and child abuse experts to make the speculative case that ordinary parenting stress might have driven Linda Woo over the edge. I urged readers to reach out to parents they perceived might be in need of help.

But according to testimony and arguments heard at Woo's murder trial earlier this month — in which she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — the facts of the case suggest something more troubling than the horror of a stressed-out mother killing her child.

This did not seem to be a situation where Woo simply lost the fight to cope that all parents find themselves in. Rather, she had become so obsessed with a years-long, recently reignited illicit love affair with a young photographer and musician that his decision to break it off threw her into a suicidal depression. In concluding that she couldn't stand life without her lover, Woo also decided her children would be better off dead than having to live without her. The Outback belonged to the object of her obsession, Eric Embry; she'd taken the car from him the night before. To protect its upholstery, Assistant District Attorney Marshall Khine said, she laid down a towel before placing the grill in the car. "Clearly, she was sending [Embry] a message," says Stuart Hanlon, Woo's defense attorney. "She tells her doctors that dying would have brought them back together after death. That's a pretty nutty view."

Police found suicide notes to Woo's estranged husband and other family members, and one to Embry complaining that he hadn't called her. Phone records showed she had called him 55 times the day before.

Learning the bizarre, Fatal Attraction–like details surrounding Linda Woo's act at first gave me a sense of relief: She's not like the rest of us after all, I found myself thinking. But I was wrong. It was sparked by a confluence of individual circumstances many can understand, which included depression, extreme motherly attachment, heartbreak, and a delusional attempt at a solution.

Listening to several days of further testimony at trial, reading books on filicide and the insanity defense, and interviewing legal and psychiatric experts on women who kill their children — yes, there really is such a specialty — I learned that Woo's confounding act is common enough to occupy a place in medical literature.

"That's one of the hallmarks here: In their crazed state, they start to think the only way to take care of the children is to take them with them," said Michelle Oberman, professor of law at Santa Clara University, who has written several books and papers on mothers who kill their children.

"The mother becomes suicidal and decides to kill her children to save them from the agony of growing up without her," said Geoffrey McKee, a psychiatry professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and author of Why Mothers Kill: A Forensic Psychologist's Casebook. "Whether that's realistic or not – whether that's rational or not — that's another matter."

Once upon a time, Linda Woo seemed an unlikely suicide, let alone murderer. She was an international-level competitor in Gaelic football, a variation of soccer that allows the limited use of hands. She traveled and socialized with a group of fellow athletes, one of several overlapping social circles made up of her admirers. She was the vivacious, wisecracking hub of a dozen always-in-touch friends. She threw herself so fully into mothering her two preschool-age children that she inspired one of her constant companions to become a parent herself.

In May 2005, friends learned that Woo had separated from her husband; five months later, she guiltily admitted to her closest friends that she'd had a long-term affair with a younger man.

Woo was a publicist for PG&E in 2001 when she met Embry, who had been hired by the utility to conduct a photo shoot. Their affair blossomed when he moved to San Francisco in 2004. Woo believed she'd found her soul mate and that she'd discovered true intimacy for the first time, despite having been married for two decades.

But in the fall of 2005, Embry ended the affair. Woo slipped from being the animated life of an endless party to a wan, unusually thin, slump-shouldered fraction of herself, friends testified at trial. She also confided personal feelings in a way she never had before: "She said if it wasn't for her kids, she wouldn't have a reason to live," one close pal recalled before breaking down in sobs on the stand, compelling the judge to order a recess.

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