Death In The Family

First Khoua Her asked the clans for help. Then she went to the courts. By the time police found her six children dead, she'd run out of places to turn.

When Flinn ruled that the state has probable cause to charge Her, Wenger asked for a change of venue on the grounds that local publicity about the case has made it impossible to find an impartial jury. Flinn granted the request; oral arguments in the case are scheduled for December 15.

Her's gaze remained fixed on the floor throughout the 10-minute hearing.

If Her is convicted on the current charges against her, she could be sentenced to as many as 153 years in prison. Wilton says he has not ruled out first-degree murder charges; if he gets the upgrade, Her could receive a mandatory sentence of 180 years. Wenger is still mulling a mental-illness defense. His decision will rest in part on a still-secret psychiatric evaluation of Her prepared while she was held at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.

Janet Hamline

One criminal-justice professional who has spoken with Her says it's obvious she is mentally ill. Her demeanor "is flat," he says. "She says, 'I miss my children,' as if they were separated and not dead." The professional says Her exhibits symptoms common in rape victims and may have a dissociative disorder--an illness in which a person "splits off" parts of her experience as if they weren't her own--or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even if Her is found to have one or more mental disorders, it may not spare her from a life behind bars. Minnesota has some of the toughest standards in the nation for mentally ill defendants: Only if it can be proven she could not understand her actions were wrong may she be found not guilty by reason of insanity. According to Wilton, in the past three decades only one defendant has successfully argued mental illness in Ramsey County. (In 1993 Debra Jackson, who had a history of psychosis, quit taking her medication and killed her two children after "voices" told her they would be taken to hell if she didn't.)

A diagnosis of mental illness would be of little comfort to the Hmong community, says Gaoly Yang of the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao. "Mental illness is not something our culture understands or accepts," the Hmong advocate explains. "When someone is depressed after the loss of a spouse or a child, we call those feelings 'hopelessness.' But that word doesn't allow anyone to lose control. Mental illness--we don't have a word for that."

The St. Paul Schools' Yang Dao adds that he believes psychological and stress-related problems were rare among the Hmong in their homeland: "In Laos we have all kinds of counseling. We have the family, the clan, and the community leaders. We never have to deal with our problems alone. It's not the same here."

Mee says that in her conversations with Her, she got the impression that Her "felt abandoned and was very isolated and depressed. She loved her children very much and felt that if she died, no one would care for them or love them." She notes that on the day of the deaths, Her chose formal garb rather than the casual clothing she usually favored--a detail she believes shows that Her was serious about killing herself along with the children. "You only wear the ceremonial dress for special occasions like New Year's, or when you die," Mee points out. "You can only be with your ancestors if you wear the Hmong clothes."

For Dao the Hang family tragedy hearkens back to events he witnessed two decades ago. In 1980, when he was living in Paris, he got word that a Hmong couple had killed their three children and attempted suicide. "I went to the hospital where they were being kept and spoke to both the mother and the father," he remembers. "They told me they were trying to emigrate to the U.S., but the government had turned them down. As a last resort, the husband and wife decided to commit a family suicide.

"They told the children it was time to go to bed and had them drink the poison and lay down next to each other," Dao continues. "The husband and the wife then drank the poison and lay down on the bed next to their children, expecting to die with them. But they survived."

Dao says such events are uncommon among the Hmong. But, he adds, in a way they are not inconsistent with his culture's beliefs. "According to Hmong tradition, children are more precious than anything in the entire world," he explains. "They are considered a blessing from God, and parents will do whatever is necessary to protect them."

If Her did kill her children, Dao says, "It was probably in her mind: 'I want to die, but I don't want my children to be miserable. So before I die, I will kill them, and my children and I will go together to live a new life with happiness.' This is both cultural and spiritual thinking. In Laos when someone within the family dies, it's not unusual that the survivor will try to kill him- or herself, thinking that they will live with that family member in another world."

« Previous Page
Next Page »