Accused child killer Chelsea Thornton sat quietly this week in the jury box of an Orleans Parish courtroom, where nothing happened with her case.
It’s been like that for nearly two years.
Thornton faces a pair of first-degree murder charges for slaying her two young children in their rat- and roach-infested Gert Town apartment on October 17, 2012.
The death penalty remains on the table, a spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office said this week.
Yet nobody appears in any rush to see Thornton tried for the double filicide, which she admitted to police in a chilling taped confession, describing it as a mercy killing.
“I did the best I could for them, but I just, I didn’t want them to go from pillar to post their whole life like I did,” she told police. “It’s not right.”
In grim detail, Thornton described talking to her frightened children before she shot 3-year-old Kendall, then drowned him and 4-year-old Kelsey in the tub when the gun jammed.
“So I just gave them a hug and a kiss, and I said, ‘I love y’all very much.’”
The tape was played in court in October 2014, a month after two mental health experts hired by the defense found that Thornton was legally insane at the time of the killings.
Cannizzaro’s office then hired a different expert to conduct his own review.
Dr. Michael Blue, a forensic psychiatrist, interviewed Thornton twice, in July and August of last year, court records show. But Blue has yet to submit his report, leaving the case in legal limbo, with no trial date set.
The case is on its third set of prosecutors. It is now assigned to Cannizzaro’s daughter, Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, and fellow prosecutor Tiffany Tucker.
Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to discuss the delay or Dr. Blue’s pending report, citing office policy.
Blue did not return messages about the case.
Thornton’s attorney, former DA candidate Lionel “Lon” Burns, said he fears his client is “going to end up back in a mental hospital.”
“Only so many times I can tell her we’re waiting on a report,” Burns said. “Ms. Thornton is still in Orleans Parish Prison. She’s been sitting back there, and the case is going nowhere fast.”
Thornton has entered dual pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. Burns said he needs Blue’s report to prepare for a trial in which a jury would ultimately decide her insanity claim. A verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity would send Thortnon to a state hospital for as long as Criminal District Judge Robin Pittman or a successor would see fit.
Burns said he presumes Blue’s report will say Thornton was sane — that she knew right from wrong — when she killed her children.
Thornton was arrested within hours of a relative discovering the two small bodies in the tub, and she quickly admitted to the killings.
She has a lengthy history of mental illness, having been diagnosed at various times with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with psychotic episodes, as well as depression. Hospital records showed she had been off her medication for several months before the killings.
Her relatives and advocates have described the children’s deaths as a grisly reminder of wide fissures in the city’s mental health care framework.
Forensic psychiatrists Dr. Sarah Deland and Dr. James McConville found Thornton was legally insane when she picked up Kendall and Kelsey from school, fed them, told them she loved them and killed them, according to her own account.
Thornton was “almost getting catatonic on that day,” Deland testified. “She feared for their future and thought going to heaven was the best thing for them.”
Within a few months of Thornton’s January 2013 indictment, Pittman ordered her to a state hospital despite having found her competent to stand trial, a separate determination from the question of her sanity at the time of the killings.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals appealed, and a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal panel ordered Thornton back to Orleans Parish in July 2013, finding Pittman had no authority to order her hospitalization.
“This is not to say that should Ms. Thornton decompensate on multiple occasions while in the sheriff’s custody, making her again unfit for trial, that it may not at some point in the future be appropriate to direct that she remain in the treatment facility until her trial,” the appeals panel wrote.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 16.