The lake tragedy at Wyndham Vale: How mental illness affects sentencing
Victorian prosecutors have now sought a High Court appeal of the decision by the Victorian Supreme Court to cut the sentence of a Mother who pleaded guilty to the murders of her children.
In April 2015, Sudanese mother-of-seven Akon Guode drove a vehicle carrying four of her young children into a lake at Wyndham Vale. Her four-year-old twins and her 17-month-old baby died while her five-year-old daughter survived after being pulled from the water.
Guode pleaded guilty to one charge of infanticide, two charges of murder and one charge of attempted murder.
Justice Lazry initially sentenced Guode to 26.5 years’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 20 years.
The Crown accepted that Guode had been suffering from post-natal depression at the time of the deaths and that she had had “an extraordinarily difficult life”. While living in Sudan, Guode had witnessed her first husband’s murder before she was raped. As a consequence, Guode developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She later came to Australia and was ostracized by the Sudanese community as her new partner was still living with his former partner.
Guode’s defence appealed the sentence, arguing that it was excessive given Guode’s background, her lack of prior offending, her plea of guilty, her mental impairment and the fact that she faces deportation upon completing her sentence.
How does mental impairment affect sentencing?
Guode’s defence argued that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Guode’s mental state at the time of the offence and that it should have been given more weight.
The 2007 case of Verdins found that mental impairment could be relevant to sentencing in five ways, including:
- Reduce the offender’s moral culpability;
- Reduce the weight given to deterrence; and
- Increase the hardship the offender will experience in prison.
It is not an easy hurdle to overcome in the criminal courts, but is well settled that the offender must establish either that:
- The mental impairment affected their ability to understand the wrongfulness of their conduct; or
- The mental impairment obscured their intent to commit the offence; or that
- The mental impairment affected their ability to make rational and clear choices.
In August 2018, the Court of Appeal relied on evidence that Guode’s “mental functioning at the time of the offences was impaired by a clinically significant mood disorder, and that this was likely causally associated with her behaviour in driving into the lake”. The Court reduced Guode’s sentence to 18 years’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of 14 years.
The Court found that the sentence was “manifestly excessive” and agreed that adequate weight had not been given to Guode’s mental impairment. The Court acknowledged that “Major depression impaired the applicant’s capacity to exercise appropriate judgement, and her capacity to think clearly and make calm and rational choices”.
If you need advice in relation to a criminal charge where your mental illness may have played a role in the offending, our experienced criminal lawyers in Clifton Hill can help.