SA ‘Killer Mum’ Lauren Dickason’s New Zealand murder trial is a chillingly strange, sad and complex affair

SA ‘Killer Mum’ Lauren Dickason’s New Zealand murder trial is a chillingly strange, sad and complex affair
Lauren Anne Dickason is on trial in the Christchurch High Court, New Zealand, charged with murdering her daughters - Liané (6), and twins Maya and Karla (2). (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

The New Zealand trial of a South African woman dubbed Killer Mum after the murder of her three daughters raises difficult questions about parenting, migration and mental health.

On the night of 16 September 2021, 41-year old Lauren Dickason walked into the garage of the rental home her family had recently moved into in Timaru, New Zealand.

There, she collected a bunch of cable ties that she would proceed to interlock around the necks of her three children: two-year-old twins Maya and Karla, and six-year-old Liané, after telling them that they were going to “make necklaces”. When this strangulation method failed, she placed a towel over each child’s head in turn and smothered them to death.

It is a story that continues to generate sensational international headlines about the “Killer Mum”. In New Zealand, where Dickason is currently on trial for three counts of murder in the Christchurch High Court, details from the pathologist’s report into the nature of the killings have been suppressed from the public out of sensitivity. There is arguably no greater taboo in human society than maternal filicide, the killing of a child by a mother, and the public response has been one of appropriate horror.

But complicating the picture has been the fact that the New Zealand Crown, prosecuting the case, has been unable to produce a single witness to deliver a significant criticism of Dickason’s character. Outside the courtroom, in media interviews, those who know her have consistently spoken of the Pretoria doctor in glowing terms – as an exceptionally kind person who was also, in the words of one friend, “the best mom I knew”.

The trial itself, meanwhile, has thrown up some troubling issues, as the Crown maintains that text messages sent by Dickason to friends venting about the difficulties of parenting should be considered evidence of long-held murderous intent.

Lauren Dickason with her husband and murdered daughters Liané, and twins Maya and Karla

Lauren Anne Dickason is on trial in the Christchurch High Court, charged with murdering her daughters Liané, and twins Maya and Karla. (Photo: Facebook)

Lauren Dickason with her family

Orthopaedic surgeon Graham Dickason and Karla Dickason with their three children, twins Maya and Karla, and older sister Liané. (Photo: Facebook)

The central questions of the trial

The Dickason trial has been a strange and sad affair, with none of the basic facts of the case in dispute. Both sides agree that Dickason alone killed her children in the specified manner. The key contestation instead is over why Dickason killed her children – a question which the trial has revealed, astonishingly, was not ever put to her by police in her interview after the murders.

The other riddle at the heart of the case is whether Dickason knew that what she was doing was morally wrong. She has pleaded not guilty by reason either of insanity or infanticide – the latter an unusual loophole within the New Zealand statute books that allows a defendant to escape a homicide conviction if it can be proven that the crime can be linked to childbirth. Other jurisdictions, including South Africa, have similar allowances in law for criminal acts committed in the condition of postpartum depression – but only New Zealand, it seems, allows for this defence to be used for up to 10 years after the birth of a child.

If the infanticide defence succeeds, Dickason could spend as little as three years in prison. Even if it fails, she could still be found not guilty by reason of insanity if the jury of eight women and four men can be persuaded that she was in some kind of psychotic state when she committed the murders. In that instance, Kiwi law professor Kris Gledhill explained to Daily Maverick, what Dickason would receive is not a full acquittal: it “invariably triggers powers to direct ongoing detention in a hospital setting”.

Dickason has been kept in a psychiatric hospital since the night of the murders, when she also tried to kill herself directly afterwards – initially with a knife and, when that failed, by taking an overdose of pain medication. It is one of the more brutal aspects of the case that Dickason’s sincerity in trying to take her own life has become another of the questions of the trial: Did she try hard enough?

There are, in fact, certain legal implications that turn on this question. One of the claims from Dickason’s team is that she murdered her children out of “altruism”. Defence witness Dr Susan Hatters-Friedman, an expert on filicide, told the court that killing one’s own children “out of love” was one of five common motives for the act: usually in the belief that, by killing them, the murdering parent is saving them from a worse fate.

Dickason told interviewing psychiatrists that she thought at the time of the murders that she was saving her daughters from the “horrible world”, and giving her husband Graham some “peace and quiet”. Dickason also said she told eldest daughter Liané that, because she herself was going to die, “I can’t leave you behind because I don’t know who’s going to look after you”.

There is no disputing that Dickason seems to have brought a greater efficiency to bear on her children’s murders than on her own suicide attempt. The prosecution has dwelled on the fact that Dickason, by her own admission, used her medical training in what can be interpreted as a chillingly methodical fashion to check the vital signs of the kids to ensure they were dead before covering their bodies. By contrast, her attempt to take her own life can be seen as slapdash.

One point that has emerged in the trial, however, is that Dickason subsequently stockpiled her sleep medication in the psychiatric hospital with the intention of making another suicide attempt, which was foiled. In the courtroom, she has been reported to have been in almost constant distress while listening to the testimony of others. Photographs reveal shocking changes in her appearance: in the two years spent awaiting trial, Dickason looks to have aged a decade.

Orthopaedic surgeon Graham Dickason and Lauren Dickason, twin sisters Maya and Karla, and their older sister Liané. (Photo: Facebook)

Impact of pregnancy and parenting

The court has heard of Dickason’s struggles with mental health stretching back almost three decades, when her first depressive episodes began at about age 15 while she was at boarding school in Pretoria.

This long history of depression has been a double-edged sword for the defence. On the one hand, it clearly establishes a woman who has wrestled with demons for many years. On the other, as the Crown has not hesitated to point out, the infanticide defence rests specifically on proving that the defendant’s mental state was linked to childbirth. In Dickason’s case, this argument seems weakened by her depression long predating having children.

But if there is one clear feature of Dickason’s recent life to emerge from the testimony given in court – from her husband, family members and psychiatrists – it is the harrowing impact of pregnancy and parenting on a woman predisposed to mental health battles. The attendant social discomfort with this, in a world in which many would rather cling to the comforting fantasy that all women are naturally nurturing mothers and love the role, has also been made evident.

To give one example: the defence has highlighted the gruelling, years-long journey taken by Dickason to fall pregnant with her three children, which required 16 rounds of IVF treatment. The process is notorious for the emotional and physical toll it takes on a woman’s body, as well as the financial cost. (In one text message to a friend read out in court, Dickason said they were “broke now” as a result.)

A friend who experienced IVF treatment at the same time as Dickason subsequently gave an interview to News24 in which she said: “I could have been Lauren.” The friend, who went through fewer than half the number of IVF cycles that Dickason endured, remembered: “No one affirmed or acknowledged the impact that infertility had on our emotions, finances, bodies and marriages” – or the anxiety that accompanied the subsequent successful pregnancies and birth.

Dickason was a doctor married to a doctor. She had hoped to specialise in neurology or gynaecology, the court has heard, but set her career aside to have children. In recent years, she had returned to work part time as a manager for her husband’s practice, but had not herself practised as a GP since 2012.

In one revealing exchange in the court proceedings, prosecutor Andrew McRae suggested to Hatters-Friedman that the fact that Dickason was able to get her children up for school on the day of the murders, make them lunches and “do their hair immaculately” was evidence that Dickason was “functioning at a high level”.

Hatters-Friedman’s response: “Sure, although I wouldn’t say that is functioning at a high level coming from someone who has previously worked as a physician.”

The court was read a message Dickason sent to a friend in 2021 asking for help on how to cope with motherhood, explaining that she felt her anxiety and depression stemmed from “frustration and boredom as I look after the babies during the day and I feel as if I have no identity of my own”. Elsewhere she said: “Mums always feel this instantaneous love for their children and I never really experienced it with my kids … I think there was something wrong with me.”

The division of parenting labour in the Dickason household seems to have been decidedly old-fashioned. In Graham Dickason’s own testimony, he admitted often working late; Lauren told psychologists that she “made sacrifices” to allow him to continue to go on hunting weekends with the boys after they became parents.

The picture that emerges is of a very bright and accomplished woman deeply struggling to adapt emotionally and intellectually to her role as a mother – and compensating for her guilt about this by overperforming in practical ways. She was the parents’ representative for her eldest daughter’s school class; she frequently took the children on outings, and was the queen of arts and crafts activities.

Her husband, equally, seems not to have known quite what to do in response to his wife’s depression. Dickason claims that she had told him in the past that she was having violent thoughts towards her children and he reacted with shock and anger, telling her not to talk like that to anybody. On one occasion during a depressive episode, she says he told her to “put her big girl panties on”; on another, he phoned Dickason’s mother to come to talk to her.

A cross, a teddy bear and flowers were placed outside The Wilds in Pretoria, South Africa, where the Dickason family lived before moving to New Zealand on 23 September 2021. It is reported that the three children were found dead in their new home in Timaru, New Zealand, by their father Graham Dickason shortly after they were released from quarantine. His wife Lauren was arrested in connection with the death of the three daughters. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

The problem of the text messages

The trial is in its third week currently, and much of the first week was taken up by the Crown’s presentation of evidence taken from Dickason’s mobile phone – in particular, WhatsApp messages sent to friends. This has been questionable on a number of counts. For one, investigators admitted that they used (notoriously unreliable) Google Translate to translate some messages from Afrikaans to English. For another, the defence has pointed out that vital context in some cases has been missing from the messages presented to the jury.

To give an example, the jury was shown by the Crown a message sent by Dickason in which she wrote: “My kids are f*cking crazy.” The defence pointed out that the Crown had omitted to mention that this was, in fact, the caption to a video of Dickason’s kids splashing merrily in a paddling pool in mid-winter.

But arguably the most problematic aspect of the use of the WhatsApp messages by the prosecution has been the suggestion that Dickason was being literal when she vented to her friends in the messages about wanting to “murder” her kids. The British tabloids have run with this with glee; a recent breathless Daily Mail headline read: Lauren Anne Dickason’s chilling text messages before smothering her three daughters: “I sent her to school otherwise I would strangle her”.

Of course, Dickason’s messages might take on a sinister new dimension in light of the fact that she would actually go on to kill her kids. But as the defence has protested: What parent has not sent similar messages in frustration to trusted friends, without the slightest intention of committing actual violence against their children?

Twins Maya and Karla Dickason with their older sister Liané. (Photo: Facebook)

Twin sisters Maya and Karla Dickason with their older sister Liané. (Photo: Facebook)

Living the middle-class South African dream

It is unclear what impact the fact that this is a jury trial is likely to have on Dickason’s fate, although it is possibly revealing that her lawyers will not be putting her on the stand. One suspects, however, that the 12 Kiwi jurors may have been less than impressed to hear Dickason’s views on life in New Zealand, to which the family emigrated from Pretoria in mid-2021.

This element of the case is a stark reminder of the underdiscussed mental and emotional toll that migration can take on individuals and families. The Dickasons left South Africa because, as Lauren made clear in messages to friends, they did not believe their children would have a decent future in the country. A real tipping point for Dickason’s mental health collapse, just prior to their move, seems to have been the July 2021 riots after the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma.

Although the Dickasons’ life in a Pretoria East suburb would have been barely touched in real terms by the looting and violence, Dickason appears to have descended into a state of terror in this period, fearful that “baddies” were coming for them and insistent that her husband sleep with his firearm by their bed.

Yet, as many South Africans painfully experience, life abroad turned out not to be anywhere near the imagined paradise to escape to. At home in Pretoria, the Dickasons had built a home on a hectare plot, with a big garden and a jungle gym, and a trampoline: the middle-class South African dream. In Timaru, a city on New Zealand’s South Island, Dickason found the people “unkempt” and overweight; the children all looked sad, she reported, and she could not get over the small size of the houses compared with what they were used to back home.

Perhaps in time she would have assimilated. The defence has argued that her responses to her environment were clearly coloured by her mental state. Since the murders, Dickason’s husband has moved back to South Africa, and testified in her trial via video link. However, Dickason herself does not look likely to be able to leave the island any time soon – or to escape the reality of life after her deeds. DM

(Dickason was found guilty of murder in the High Court in Christchurch, New Zealand on 16 August.)

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    I’m no psychiatrist but sounds as if she was truly in bad shape and conflicted. With her medical training she would have better ideas for murder and suicide surely? Can only feel horror and pity for this family.

  • Pam Saxby says:

    I feel desperately sorry for Lauren Dickason. What she did was horrific, but a combination of extreme stress and certain substances can do strange things to the mind. Whatever the outcome of this trial, Dickason will have to live with the knowledge of what happened for the rest of her life – which is why she wants to end it. It seems unlikely that she will ever find peace … An absolute tragedy in every possible respect for everyone concerned. Terrible …

  • David Muller says:

    Lauren Dickson needs all the love we can muster. I’m reminded of the Schaefer (sp?} play Equus as I read Rebecca’s article about this sad, sad, sad news. And, someow there’s a correlation with the woman I sat next to in Kalk Bay; she was waiting for a taxi, while I was enjoying an ice cream. During our conversion I learnt that in order to earn only R300/day as a domestic worker she rises at 5am, leaves her two young children (9 & 5 yrs old) in the hands of a nanny – whom she pays only R400/month, travels from Delft to Kalk Bay to a home to clean from 8am to 3pm twice a week. Sindy told me she still has two days in the week which need filling with work. Her husband is an Uber driver. What really touched me was her tone of voice throughout our discourse. And, there was a smile on her face. Matricide was as far away from her thoughts as New Zealand is from Africa.

  • Gregory Favish says:

    This is like sympathizing with a mass shooter because they were depressed and bullied. No , once you cross the murder line you deserve full accountability

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    I feel so achingly sorry for anyone related in any way to this event. There are no winners in this sad story.

  • It is upsetting that her husband appears to have abandoned her and moved back to SA

    • David Hill says:

      What! I couldnt stand to be anywhere near the woman who murdered my three beautiful daughters!

      • Lackson Qoto says:

        Laura suffered from mental health issues that manifested themselves in the horrific murder of her own children. She needs all the support she can get from those close to her. if i were her husband, yes I would mourn the death of my daughters, but i would stand next to my accused wife to the end. Did we not say…”to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”?

        • Brendan Temple says:

          You probably find he needed close family and friends support to actually deal with the trauma he has been through. NZ is a very lonely place, if you not from there.

      • And if she can do that to the kids i wonder what she would do to you as the husband. Yooh im sorry but its too scary. I totally understand why the dude is distancing himself from her.

  • Johan Buys says:

    I can’t imagine the horror of living with the fact that you chose to kill your three daughters rather than (as well educated person), having yourself institutionalized or killing yourself. No matter the jail sentence, her life will be hell until she dies.

  • Rael Chai says:

    Whether she was depressed or not; suicidal or not there is no excuse in the world that can justify the horrific murder of not one, but three beautiful young girls. She actually went through the process of smothering her 3 daughters to death; one by one. She 100% knew what she was doing and that it was wrong. She even said in at least one interview that once she had killed the first he knew she had to finish it because there would be a consequence. Sadly for her, her suicide attempt was poor. There is evidence that she harboured resentment and jealousy towards her daughters because they favoured their father over her and she felt that she no longer got the attention from her husband that she craved. Whether she s mentally unwell or not is not justification for this kind of action – you could say that too for a man who murders his wife’s lover in a fit of rage when he finds them together. Or someone who murders for any other reason. Its a horrific story but the circumstances in no way justify the act and she should go to jail and serve time for this.

  • Yvette Von Faber says:

    What I do know first hand a Woman that has given birth to a baby will all get postpartum depression. Most Women don’t get it severely. I didn’t get it after my first baby I just had a reduction of milk. So I went back to the hospital and the Sister there prescribed Eglonyl. It worked so each time I have birth I would get it. I had 5 Children. When my second eldest child gave birth she had terrible postpartum depression. So I got the Doc to prescribe Eglonyl for her. My eldest Daughter also got postpartum depression also used Eglonyl. It’s a game changer. One of the side effects of it gives you a huge boost of milk production. I’m really surprised she didn’t take it as she was a Doctor and so is her Husband. But to attempt to kill your Babies and then fail then try again right after I cannot accept that at all. If she was so distraught why didnt she kill herself? I believe she knew exactly what she was doing. I believe she loathed her Husband because she wanted to still practice and I believe he didn’t want her to. Both Parents are to blame. He probably Forced her to be the caregiver which is probably not how she saw envisaged her life. She was completely cut off from the world. And has to leave South Africa because her Husband wanted to immigrate.

  • Claire Volkwyn says:

    Unless you have suffered from postpartum depression, it is hard to imagine just how badly your mind can trick you into believing things that aren’t real. It is hard to believe that you can get to the point where hurting your children – or worse – not only makes sense but seems to be an obvious and “sane” solution.

    The comments below about “knowing what she was doing” shows a lack of understanding of the true horrors of depression and PPD – and most of them come from men who will never experience PPD, yet feel qualified to comment on it.

    It is easy to ask why didn’t she do this or that, or why didn’t her husband do whatever, but PPD is a slow, sneaking monster that creeps up, whispering terrible things in your ear and clouding your judgement.

    And it’s not always obvious. It may not show in ways that would be recognised or raise obvious, “there is imminent danger” type warning signs. The worst of it is, that as women we try to hide it – not because we are being sneaky, but because we don’t want people to think we are weak, we believe we have to cope, embrace the miracle of motherhood… because of the stigma.

    Couple that with an existing mental health issue, a move to another country and losing your support system, quarantine etc… well… who knows how any of us would have reacted then.

    This woman needs our compassion, our understanding and our empathy. She needs help – not condemnation – she needs support… because her reality is now the nightmare most of us dread.

    • Marco Savio Savio says:

      This is a scary summary!

      • Claire Volkwyn says:

        Sadly, this is partly what it feels like. And you never know which way the PPD will go. In my case, it made me overprotective and completely (and unreasonably) suspicious of my partner. In others, it can lead to self-harm or worse.

        PPD is one of the most misunderstood afflictions?… diseases?… post-pregnancy issues? I don’t know what you want to call it, but it’s something that needs to be discussed far more, because the consequences of ignoring are – literally – deadly.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    Depression & mental health is very complex, and I do not think we should be judging. Let the experts decide.

  • John Belyeu says:

    Bottom line, would you like this person, no matter what exigent or medically understandable predisposition might exist, to be out in society

  • Typical excuses for prominent individuals, no one offers the same sympathy and understanding for poor falks. If we accept such excuses as a society for murder, not of one or two people but three in a row, we simply justifying and promoting the deeds of serial killers under the guise of mental health. A notion that cannot be ascertained or proved with reasonable evidence. This lady was too sick to care for three kids but healthy enough to practice medicine?… I think we should also look into her past workplace to confirm she didn’t kill anyone else there due to “mental health”. This reminds me of the English nurse who was recently convicted for injecting air into new born babies and poisoning others with insulin.

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