Local News

Mom declared insane at time of 2-year-old son's death

Posted January 16, 2014

— A Wake County judge on Thursday dismissed a murder charge against a woman who suffocated her young son inside a Raleigh hotel room more than a year ago, finding that she was schizophrenic and delusional at the time of the crime and that she believed it was necessary to kill the boy because he was better off dead.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens also ordered that Michelle Danielle Harpster be involuntarily committed because she is still mentally ill and a danger to herself and others.

Harpster, 30, was charged with murder in October 2012 in the Sept. 26, 2012, death of her 2-year-old son, Joshua Callahan, who was found dead in a sleeping position on a pillow in a room at the Super 8 hotel on New Bern Avenue.

Mental health experts for both the state and the defense found that, at the time of the crime, Harpster believed that "rich white people" were conspiring to take her son and either sell him or use him as a sex slave.

Harpster, they said, felt she had only two options: She could keep him alive and be kidnapped by strangers and used as a sex slave, or she could "send him to Jesus."

"If she didn't kill him, she thought, he would face a fate worse than death," said Dr. James Bellard, a forensic psychiatrist for the defense.

"She felt sort of morally justified and that it was extremely important for her to do that because she had no other choice," Stephanie Callaway, a clinical psychologist for the state, testified.

At the time of the crime, Harpster had been a guest at the Super 8 for several days. Police were called to the hotel after a maintenance worker couldn't get into the room.

A police detective testified that the door had been barricaded and that officers found Harpster on the floor by the bed with numerous cuts from a razor to her body – something she had done so she could join her son and be with Jesus.

Harpster admitted later that day at a hospital that she woke up around 3 a.m. while the boy was sleeping and put her hands over his mouth and nose while she prayed, sang to him and told him, "Nobody's going to hurt you."


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  • whatelseisnew Jan 20, 2014

    This should be just another fact to be used to bring an immediate death sentence. Down the road some doc will declare her to be good to go and send her back out so she can kill someone. That Doc of course will not suffer any punishment for their crime of pretending they can judge mental competency.

  • Bealzebub Jan 17, 2014

    Until you have spent a day with an unmediated schizophrenic, i would ask to reserve judgement. Its an eye opening experience for sure...

  • hollylama Jan 17, 2014

    Susan Smith elaborated.

  • dcatz Jan 17, 2014

    "I think the laws need to be changed about this. She still murdered her child, schizophrenic or not. Keep the murder conviction but b/c of the schizophrenia have a different place to commit her besides regular prison."

    Without malice aforethought, it isn't murder.

    As has already been explained, with the exception of strict liability crimes (e.g. statutory rape), there is both a mental component (mens rea) and a physical component (actus reus). The state of mind and intent of the accused is as important as the act they themselves did.

    Someone who is delusional and who truly believes killing their child will save them cannot be said to be acting out of malice.

    This is a good guide to basic criminal law : http://www.crimesanddefenses.com/SilverBullets7.html

    It is written from a Texas point of view but a lot of it is the same in North Carolina.

  • wenfromwake Jan 17, 2014

    I think the laws need to be changed about this. She still murdered her child, schizophrenic or not. Keep the murder conviction but b/c of the schizophrenia have a different place to commit her besides regular prison.

  • anneonymousone Jan 17, 2014

    NCRebel, mental illness has nothing to do with morality, intelligence, or force of will.

    JuryDoc explained the insanity defense well, as well as providing information about how the insanity defense actually works for those who successfully make that plea.

    The compassion exhibited by some here

  • jurydoc Jan 17, 2014

    View quoted thread

    You must be unaware that the insanity defense is attempted in a miniscule number of cases (2-5%) and is "successful" in a miniscule % of those. As a matter of fact, it's "success" rate is about 1-2% of cases. And as far as how long folks declared insane stay confined in mental hospitals, try taking a look at "On being sane in insane places" to see how "easy" it is to be released from one of these facilities. Furthermore, the vast majority of convicted murderers are released in a time period that is shorter than the time those acquitted by reason of insanity are kept in confinement.

  • Half Red Half Blue Jan 17, 2014

    People truly don't understand what mental illness is until they themselves or a love one suffers through it. A lot goes on inside the brain that none of us here can truly comprehend. Because this is an illness that can't physically bee seen, to many people are quick to dismiss the reality. I truly hope she get the help she needs.

  • dae66 Jan 17, 2014

    None of us know for sure. If she is sane and this is all a ruse, may she live haunted by her actions every single day.

  • tom73b Jan 17, 2014

    This is a tragic case for both the baby, and the mother. Schizophrenia is a terrible disease. It happens in the 20's is progressive and there is no cure. Imagine knowing that you are slowing losing touch with reality, and there is nothing you can do about it. I have often though about how terrible that would be. My heart goes out to both the mother and the child. My prayers are with them both. I think the insanity decision in this case is very appropriate