Four weeks after 43-year-old Jody Herring, a mother of three, lost custody of her 9-year-old daughter she viciously targeted the people she held to blame, prosecutors said at her sentencing hearing in Vermont this week. On 7 August 2015, Jody Herring shot and killed 48-year-old Department for Children and Families social worker Lara Sobel as she left her office just hours after killing her two cousins, 48-year-old Regina Herring and 43-year-old Rhonda Herring, and her aunt, 73-year-old Julie Falzarano in the same way, believing all had been conspiring against her to ensure she lost parental custody of her child.
At the time of the shootings, Herring had lost custody of all three of her children. With a history of substance abuse and related criminal charges, she had been engaged with the Children and Families social work department in Vermont for many years over her lifestyle and the care of her children.
Jody Herring pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and three counts of second-degree murder in July 2017 in a plea deal which would see her imprisoned for a minimum of 20 years to life for the latter charges. On 15 November 2017, she was told the decision of Judge John Pacht, that she would serve life without parole for the first-degree murder of Lara Sobel.
Herring’s defense attorney highlighted that Jody Herring had an abusive and violent childhood and had been struggling with her state of mind with a psychiatrist testifying at her sentencing that she suffered from an anxiety disorder.
This is a case that has caused controversy, reigniting the thorny issue of mental health and severe violent crime after it was revealed that Herring had been placed on an involuntary 90-day psychiatric care order earlier in the year.
She was, however, released early and if she had been held for the full 90 days she would still have been in hospital receiving psychiatric treatment at the time all four of these murders occurred. Although sympathetic to issues of mental health, this information made little difference to the punishment Herring received for her crimes.
Boston Globe Media reported at the time of her sentencing the comments of Matthew Levine, an Assistant State Attorney General involved in the case who said:
“The reality is that childhood abuse, substance abuse, mental health problems are all too common in our society, and while we should do everything we can to combat them, they don’t and shouldn’t justify, excuse or mitigate a planned brutal, savage, multiple murder.”
The case of serial killer Joseph Christopher is one which also has undertones of untreated mental illness and opportunity for multiple murders to have been prevented. Christopher was convicted of three counts of murder in 1982 for shootings he carried out in Buffalo, New York in 1980. He had presented himself to a psychiatric unit the year before the shootings asking for help with mental illness, however, he was turned away from inpatient treatment after not being deemed a risk to himself or others. His three convictions were eventually overturned based on his mental health status but he was tried a second time and in 1986 convicted on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison. In between these trials, he was also convicted of murder and attempted murder for stabbings he carried out in New York City in the months after the shootings.
The case of Joseph Christopher is a complex one highlighting the difficulties in dealing with mental illness, violence, and homicide. He was, without doubt, a mentally disturbed individual and his mental illness drove his motivations and actions in his brutal acts of murder.
For Jody Herring, questions have been raised over her early release from hospital with her lawyer David Sleigh calling the decision, “reckless and negligent” according to the Boston Globe. “Jody Herring should have remained involuntarily hospitalized for the mental health crisis she was in the midst of, as she was clearly a danger to herself and to others,’’ he wrote in court documents.
The number of homicides committed by those with a mental health condition is still unclear from the research in this field. Currently, most recent studies suggest that approximately 10% of all homicides carried out in the United States were perpetrated by an individual with severe and untreated psychiatric disorders. These statistics are also reflected in research looking at mental illness and homicide around the world, with 11% of individuals convicted of homicide or attempted homicide in Sweden between 1988 and 2001 having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In the UK, between 1996 and 1999 it was found that 5% of those convicted of homicide had schizophrenia, although when homicides in London were looked at alone across 1979 and 1980, this percentage rose to 11%.
A study in Australia by the Australian Institute of Criminology reported in 1999 that of 2821 homicides that occurred between July 1989 and June 1998, approximately 4.4% of offenders had a known mental illness at the time of the homicide. Furthermore, they found little evidence to support the homicide of strangers by those with severe mental illness. Instead, they highlighted that should an individual with mental illness they carry out violent acts; family members were more likely to be targeted.
Jody Herring is reported to have left threatening messages on the answering machine at her cousin and aunt’s residence hours before she shot and killed them. “You might want to stop… calling DCF or I’m going to come there and shoot your brains out,” she yelled down the phone reported The Independent. Soon after, Herring was detained by passers-by in the minutes after she fired two shots at Lara Sobel, killing her instantly, until the police arrived to take her into custody.
Her demeanour, reports said, was jovial. She was happy, joking and laughing with seemingly no concern or remorse for what she had just done. The outcome for Jody Herring after taking the lives of four people, three of whom her own family members, is a lifetime in prison. At her sentencing, Jody Herring addressed the court, “I’m very sorry. I can’t take back that day. I wish I could but I can’t.” she said. “I handle my stress so differently than anybody else does, and I wish could help myself.”