WATERLOO – Michelle Kehoe said she wanted jurors to know what she was going through in 2008 when she cut the throats of her two children, killing one, and then turned the knife on herself.
“I needed the jury to hear my experience. I needed the jury to hear it was out of my control on that day. … I know that this horrific, tragic act happened through my hands. But it would never have been the intention of my heart, it would have never been the intention of a healthy mind,” Kehoe said Thursday.
But Kehoe didn’t take the stand at her 2009 trial, she said, because she didn’t feel stable, the result of anxiety, depression and a change in her medication.
Now 44 and serving a life sentence for murder, attempted murder and child endangerment, Kehoe is asking the court to grant her a new trial.
During a post-conviction relief hearing in Waterloo, Kehoe’s attorney James Peters argued her attorneys during the 2009 trial failed to explain her right to testify and failed to obtain proper treatment while the case was pending, a move that left Kehoe unable to participate in the trial.
Judge Richard Stochl will issue a ruling at a later date.
Authorities were called to a pond on the outskirts of Littleton in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2008, after Kehoe, who had been living in Coralville, arrived at a nearby home with cut wounds saying she and her children had been kidnapped and attacked by a man who had hidden in her van.
Police found her 2-year-old son, Seth, dead near the pond and her 7-year-old son wounded.
Kehoe later admitted to the attacks, authorities said. The trial was moved to Grundy County because of pretrial publicity, and Kehoe’s attorneys undertook an insanity defense.
Jurors found her guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder and child endangerment causing serious injury.
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On the stand Thursday, Kehoe talked of growing up in Northeast Iowa, taking part in band, flag corps and theater at Decorah High School, double majoring in biology and psychology at the University of Iowa, studying physical therapy at St. Ambrose University and working as a pharmacy technician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
She also talked of seeking treatment for depression and anxiety in 1996 and the laundry list of medications and electro-convulsion therapy in the years that followed. There was a 1998 suicide attempt that involved drinking automobile fuel line cleaner and running a pickup truck in a closed garage, and a 1999 attempt in a Cedar Rapids hotel where she stabbed herself in an attempt to make it look like she had been kidnapped.
“This is the presence of my stepfather haunting me. This has happened with all of the suicide attempts. The one in ’98, telling me I was worthless, I couldn’t achieve anything, no one would believe in me. In ’99 it would have appeared that I had been abducted and stabbed, left to die in the bathtub, and the abductor, in my head, was my stepfather,” Kehoe said. She said her stepfather had abused her at an early age.
A 2007 accident that sent her car into the Iowa River in Iowa City with her and her children inside was an accident, she said. She said she lost control of the vehicle when she reached into the backseat to pick up a pacifier while driving.
Kehoe told the court she was emotionally devastated by the accident and days later briefly thought about climbing to the top of a parking garage and jumping to her death.
“I could not accept that I had put my own children, myself and these four men (who helped with the river rescue) in harm’s way by my actions,” Kehoe said. “In other suicide attempts, it was just me, but now I had children. And the thought that went through my head was, no one can love them like l love them. No one can care for them they way I care for them, and I cannot leave my children behind without me.”
Kehoe didn’t recount the 2008 attack itself during Thursday’s hearing, but she told court about the anxiety that began to creep back into her life shortly before, as caring for her mother led to memories of sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
She talked about how she wanted to explain to jurors that during the attacks she was being “haunted” by and controlled by her stepfather.
“I needed them to be able to see me as a person. I needed to be able to convey to them how I had devoted my life to caring for my children, that they were the center of my world, that I was not a hideous long-term criminal,” Kehoe said.
During the 2009 trial, during a brief meeting in chambers, Kehoe did acknowledge to a judge she decided not to testify. The decision was to tell Kehoe’s story through the therapists who treated her. On Thursday, she said that decision was the result of her unstable mental status at the time and her trial attorneys cautioning her the cross examination by prosecutors would be brutal.