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Editorial: Justice remains elusive in case of drowned children

Leatrice Brewer, who admitted to drowning her children

Leatrice Brewer, who admitted to drowning her children but pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect in February 2009, is seeking a portion of the wrongful death settlements awarded to the children's estates. Credit: Howard Schnapp, 2008

Though more than five years have passed since Leatrice Brewer of New Cassel admitted to drowning her three children, "justice" -- that place sought by victims and the media, promised by authorities and to which culprits are brought -- remains hard to define in this tragedy.

Brewer, held in a secure psychiatric facility upstate, is demanding a portion of the wrongful death settlements Nassau County agreed to pay her children's two fathers. The state's "Son of Sam" law prohibits those convicted of a crime from gaining financial benefits from their actions. But Brewer never went to trial for the three murders because she was found too unstable to understand the charges against her -- what's called "not guilty" by reason of mental disease or defect.

Brewer's case highlights a gray area of the "Son of Sam" law. Since she wasn't convicted of the crime, can she reap any financial benefits in its wake? The $350,000 at stake is the amount for which Nassau County settled two civil cases for its role in the wrongful deaths of the children. In August, a Surrogate's Court judge in Mineola will review Brewer's claim that she is entitled to a share of the estates of her kids, aged 6, 5 and 18 months at the time of their deaths.

Psychiatric evaluations in 2009 showed the single mother suffered from major depressive disorder, inducing hallucinations and paranoia. The kids' fathers alerted Child Protective Services of Brewer's increasingly violent behavior, but county social workers never removed the children from her care and placed them in protective custody.

Like so many others with mental illness in a time of limited public resources, Brewer fell through the cracks. Her children paid the price. And Nassau County's $350,000 in settlements, whether awarded completely to the fathers or partially to her, won't remedy any of it. Any portion she got would be taken by the state for her care.

No good can result from the Brewer case. Three children remain dead, leaving justice nowhere to be found.