He tells jurors that his wife ‘loved the boys’
TYLER – Keith Laney had only the slightest hint of anguish in his deep East Texas voice but the haunted look of a man living an endless nightmare.
Speaking publicly for the first time since two of his sons died and a third was maimed, he told a jury that he wonders every day why the devoted wife he still loves bashed their boys’ heads in with stones last Mother’s Day weekend.
“I can’t understand,” he testified in the second day of Deanna Laney‘s capital murder trial. “We didn’t have any problems.”
The 47-year-old air-compressor repairman was among four family members called by prosecutors to explain that they saw nothing to suggest Mrs. Laney was anything but a devout Christian, loving mother and happy wife before the May 10 attacks.
Mrs. Laney’s attorneys hope to convince an eight-man, four-woman jury that she suffered from psychotic delusions so severe that she didn’t know right from wrong and was therefore legally insane.
She is charged with capital murder in the deaths of 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Luke, as well as serious injury to a child for the maiming of Aaron, now almost 2.
If convicted, she faces life in prison; if acquitted by reason of insanity, she would go to a state mental hospital for evaluation and treatment.
Prosecutors spent the first 1 ½ days of the trial reconstructing the attacks that came at the Laneys’ rural Smith County home. Mrs. Laney called 911 just after midnight May 10 and told police with eerie calm that she had just killed her boys with rocks on orders from God.
Deputies who came to the family’s brick home found a bloodbath. The older boys’ bodies were in the yard, one in the gore-spattered rock garden where his head was bashed in, and the other nearby behind a glider swing.
An hourlong videotape of what police found was played for jurors Tuesday morning. It showed the jarring contrast between the carnage ringed with yellow police tape and a warm, immaculate home filled with family pictures and toys.
Beside the Laneys’ front steps were signs with childish red letters: “thank God for Mothers” and “Mother’s love grows here.” Mr. Laney said his oldest sons made them at the church that was a focus of all their lives, Tyler’s First Assembly of God.
Deputy Dallas County medical examiner Sheila Spotswood then spent several hours detailing the older boys’ fatal injuries. Mrs. Laney, 39, wept and shook as prosecutors displayed grisly poster-size autopsy photos.
Mr. Laney stared blankly. A large man in a plaid shirt, roper boots and creased Wranglers, Mr. Laney remained stoic as he testified for nearly an hour about his boys, their close-knit, Christian life, and the night they were attacked.
Joshua was “quiet, loving, real loving,” he said of his oldest. “A model son.”
Luke was a “challenge,” full of energy and “the comic in the family.”
Aaron walked well enough to take on stairs. “He was busy,” Mr. Laney said.
‘Cared very deeply’
Mr. Laney said that he met Mrs. Laney at church and that he knew she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” in ways he was not. In 19 years of marriage, they lived by Scripture, with nightly Bible studies and daily prayer.
His air-compressor shop was near their home, and Mrs. Laney home-schooled the boys to ensure them the one-on-one attention he lacked as a schoolchild, he said.
“She loved the boys, yes,” he said. “Just instances when they’d fall or have a wreck on their motorcycle, she was the first one there. She cared very deeply. One of ’em couldn’t cry or whine but she’d be there.”
Though they sometimes worked through difficult spells, he said, his wife never mentioned worries or troubles. She got up happy every day and stayed that way, he said. Even early, he said, “she’d make you mad, ’cause she’d most of the time smile at you.”
He said they worked hard and were debt-free, with a paid-for house, a hobby farm with a cabin and a satisfying life. Their sons were their focus, but they socialized often with both of their parents. His wife told him the night their children died that she had called that evening to invite his parents to a steak cook-out on Mother’s Day.
That night, he watched the evening news and then crawled into bed beside his wife, he said. Waking to crying, he got up to check on Aaron because the boy often fussed at night.
By dim hall lights, he saw his wife on the baby’s floor, where police later found a large bloodstain.
“Dee’s back was to me in the door. I didn’t walk all the way in the room. She turned to me. We kind of made eye contact,” he said. “I saw she was taking care of him, so I went back to bed.”
He said she told him “everything’s OK. … I got it.”
Mrs. Laney told psychiatrists that Aaron cried out when she hit him with a 4 ½-pound rock. She said she couldn’t bring herself to keep hitting him, so she put him back in his crib bleeding from a head wound and went for the older boys.
Mr. Laney said he later awoke to noise and stumbled into the hall to see a sheriff’s deputy pointing a pistol at his head. “I made the statement that they were in the wrong house,” he said. “I didn’t understand why they were in my house.”
He looked at his wife only once during his testimony, grinning as he struggled to remember the year they married.
But he did not glance at her when asked if he still loved her. “Yes,” he said simply.
LANEY TRIAL DEVELOPMENTS
Tuesday’s developments in the capital murder trial of Deanna “Dee” Laney in the deaths of sons Joshua, 8, and Luke, 6, and an attack on son Aaron, 14 months:
Laney house videotape: An hour of crime-scene video, it showed a contrast between an orderly home and carnage outside. Segments focused on bloody bodies of the older boys in the yard, as well as a walk-through of the house. It paused on photos of the boys, children’s artwork and bloody handprints in the children’s rooms.
Autopsy photos: Over defense objections, prosecutors showed 10 poster-size photos of the boys’ fatal injuries.
Autopsy findings: Joshua’s head and neck were hit at least eight times with blows so hard that his skull was penetrated. He suffered lung and heart injuries that may have come from being pinned by his mother’s knee as he struggled to escape her. Luke suffered fractures on both sides and at the base of his skull.
Keith Laney, Ms. Laney’s husband, who answered questions publicly for the first time since the slayings.
Gary Bell, Ms. Laney’s brother-in-law and pastor at Tyler’s First Assembly of God church. He described Ms. Laney as a loving mother and devout Christian who sang in the choir and was in church “every time the doors opened.” He said she gave a testimonial in the year before the attacks that God had called her to get her house in order, but he said that was nothing unusual for a faith that teaches followers to “be ready” for Jesus’ return.
Virginia Laney, Ms. Laney’s mother-in-law. The most emotional of the family witnesses, she testified briefly about her daughter-in-law calling about 6 p.m. on the night of the slayings and inviting her over for a Mother’s Day cookout.
Ritchie Laney, Ms. Laney’s brother-in-law, who lived across the street with his family and works at Keith’s air-compressor repair business. He described his nephews, Joshua as a mechanical whiz, “Lukey” as a class clown, and Aaron as a sturdy “bam-bam.”
Dr. Park Dietz, a prominent California forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Ms. Laney for the state and reported that he believed she was legally insane at the time of the attacks. He told jurors he based that on a nine-hour interview with her, along with criminal reports, medical records, her writings and videotaped interviews of her after her arrest. Dr. Dietz has worked on cases ranging from Andrea Yates to Jeffrey Dahmer to Theodore Kaczynski.
In the courtroom
District Attorney Matt Bingham shook the second-floor courtroom by dropping a 16.5-pound sandstone rock to demonstrate the force it could have inflicted on Joshua. The thud could be heard on the first floor of the courthouse.
Ms. Laney sobbed and shook as prosecutors displayed graphic photos of her sons and detailed their injuries. Ms. Laney’s mother and sister left the courtroom for the first time during autopsy testimony. Her father hung his head and stared at a wallet photo of his grandchildren, then left in tears at the end of morning testimony. Ms. Laney’s husband, Keith, watched grimly. His father sat with his eyes tightly closed, and his mother alternated between closing her eyes and wiping back tears.
Most jurors displayed little emotion for a second day. One, a 44-year-old woman with a child under 10, repeatedly averted her eyes at videotape of the boys’ bodies in the yard. Several male jurors looked stricken during autopsy testimony.
Eight men, four women, one female alternate. Four are black, one is Middle Eastern, and eight are white. Most are in their 40s, but their ages range from mid-30s to 73. One is a minister’s wife; several have worked at hospitals or mental institutions. Two have children under 10. One has loved ones who have attended Pentecostal churches. Several had said they or loved ones have been treated for mental problems or have taken drugs for depression or mental illness.