PICKENS, S.C. (AP) — Mike Simpson cried as his wife was sentenced to life in prison for killing their children in their South Carolina home. He has one of the bullets fired still in his skull, but he has lost almost all his memories of his 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
A jury found Suzanna Simpson, 38, guilty of two counts of murder Thursday along with attempted murder for trying to kill her husband. Circuit Judge Brian Gibbons immediately handed down the harshest sentence he could, saying Simpson deserved it.
All the while, Mike Simpson, in a wheelchair and with almost no short-term memory, dabbed away tears. His mother told the judge he was an amazing fighter, surviving not just more than one gunshot to his head, but the unimaginable grief of losing his kids and becoming dependent on others.
"His whole family has been taken away from him," Allison Simpson said.
The case is another example of guns and mental illness intersecting in a country that struggles with both. One month before the killings in this county of 120,000 people, the same prosecutors, defense lawyers and even psychologist were in the same courtroom. Susan Hendricks, a woman with multiple personalities, pleaded guilty but mentally ill and received a life sentence for killing her two adult sons, her ex-husband and her stepmother.
A year before the latest killings, Suzanna Simpson spent six days in the hospital for severe mental illness and her doctors urged her husband to get all of the guns out of their house for safety.
But about a year later, Simpson woke up at 4 a.m., put on a headband with a small light, worked the combination on the gun safe and ambushed her husband, and their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son as they slept. She said she tried to kill herself but loaded the wrong ammunition in the gun. Simpson told a psychiatrist she thought the whole family would be reincarnated in a better world.
Simpson had little reaction after being sent away for life, mouthing "bye" to her family as she walked out of court. Psychiatrists said she is on medication to treat bipolar disorder and other conditions.
Her lawyer, John Mauldin, said in his closing statement that society must start doing better with its most vulnerable people.
"We've got to stop turning our back on mental illness," Mauldin said. "We've got to start somewhere."
Mauldin also was the defense lawyer for Hendricks, who prosecutors said killed her family for $700,000 in life insurance. Mauldin said Hendricks was consumed by a mental illness made worse through a childhood of abuse by both parents.
In Simpson's case, prosecutors said there are clues that show while she was mentally ill, she knew what she was doing. She wore the headlamp and loaded the gun in the laundry room to not wake anyone up. She shot her husband first so he couldn't save the kids. And after loading the gun right, she managed to put in the wrong ammunition when it was time to kill herself.
"She might not have been able to control herself," prosecutor Betty Strom said. "But she knew what she was doing was wrong."
After less than two hours of deliberations, the jury asked the judge to tell them the difference between guilty and guilty but mentally ill. The judge reread his charge.
Maudlin asked the judge to throw out the verdict since the jury showed no sign Simpson was mentally ill. Every psychiatrist who testified — four in all — said she suffered from serious illnesses that require medication. Gibbons refused.
Strom pointed out people with mental illness can still hold jobs — Simpson worked at a bank for years — and raise a family. The kids were well taken care of, their school reported.
Simpson first was diagnosed with depression in college, and her mental problems worsened after having children. Psychiatrist Jeff Smith started treating her in 2010, seeing her 34 times in three years. The last time was in February 2013, when he said she appeared in great shape and scheduled a follow up in four months. The killings happened three months later.
"In my 26 years of practice, I have never had anything surprise me as much as this case did," Smith said.
A motive has eluded authorities. Prosecutors pointed out that she told family members her husband has said "it was over" because she couldn't properly take care of her children. Her lawyer said Simpson was hearing voices, so no explanation is going to make sense.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins .