PALM BEACH POST, APRIL 2, 2012
By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH —
Amy Kern used a tire iron to bludgeon to death her 80-year-old grandmother, whom she loved. She gunned down her aunt’s boyfriend, a man she barely knew who had never done anything to her.
Clearly, the now 33-year-old Dwyer High School graduate was insane, family members agreed. But, they told a Palm Beach County judge Monday, that doesn’t mean they have to forgive her.
Wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the photos of William Chapman and Donna Kern and the words “We Will Never Forget,” they told Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath they don’t understand why Kern’s only punishment is to be sent to a state mental hospital, while their loved ones endured such brutal and inexplicable deaths.
“I hope she rots in hell,” said Harriett Curles, who came to the hearing seeking justice for her slain brother.
“I want Amy to know I hate her and I have nothing but contempt for her,” said Diane Perkins, one of Chapman’s other sisters.
Turning to Kern, who wept openly as she was repeatedly described as an animal, Perkins said. “I hope the devil will make you pay for the violent crimes you committed.”
While acknowledging the horrific pain Kern caused, Colbath said he had no choice but to find her not guilty by reason of insanity.
Two prominent psychiatrists – one hired by Kern’s attorney and the other by state prosecutors – concluded that Kern was insane when on Feb. 7, 2009, she fatally shot Chapman at a Palm Beach Gardens townhouse the 59-year-old shared with her aunt, Beverly Kern. After killing Chapman, she drove to her grandmother’s home in Jupiter and beat Donna Kern to death.
“I know this proceeding will give you no closure,” Colbath said. But, he said, he doubted a trial would either.
“She will be locked up,” he said. “She will be in a secure facility, a prison for the mentally insane at least for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the rest of her life.”
Even if she is restored to sanity some day, a judge would have to agree to her release, prosecutor Sherri Collins said.
Rather than blame Kern, Colbath suggested Chapman’s grieving siblings see the crimes for what they are: “This is a horrible, horrible example of how the mental health system really has failed,” he said.
Nellie King, who represents Kern, agreed. Had the mental health system responded to Kern’s repeated cries for help, Chapman and Donna Kern might be alive today.
Living in St. Marys, Ga., Kern had been committed a month before the murders after she attacked her boyfriend with an ax. When her insurance ran out, hospital officials released her, even though they described her mental state as “helpless.” They suggested she seek treatment at a state-run psychiatric hospital in Savannah, Ga.
Realizing the medicine she had been prescribed to deal with her demons wasn’t working, she drove an hour and a half to seek help, King said. Arriving after midnight, she banged on the door of the psychiatric hospital. No one answered.
Hours later, she headed south to Port St. Lucie where voices told her to kill her father. He wasn’t home. Stealing a gun from his house, she continued driving south, firing at strangers’ cars on Interstate 95.
Diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic in her 20s and hospitalized countless times, her condition seemed to worsen when she had a baby in late 2008, King said. Unlike many others with mental health problems, Kern took her medicine and sought treatment.
“She was always seeking to be normal,” King said.
Her father, Richard Kern, tearfully told of his efforts to get his daughter help and her own efforts to cure herself. One day, he said he asked her why she was filling a notebook with nonsensical riddles.
“She said, ‘Daddy I’m trying to get my brain to straighten up,'” he recalled. “I hoped there would be a magic pill to make her well.”
Demonized by Chapman’s family for not getting his daughter help and ostracized from his sister, who lost both her boyfriend and mother to Kern’s insanity, he insisted the accusations hurled at him were unfounded. Besides, he said, his accusers seem to overlook his reality.
“It’s my daughter that killed my mother,” he said. “I’ve died a millions deaths along with Amy and the rest of my family.”
Like King, he said his daughter’s problems accelerated after she had a baby in November 2008. The rush of hormones that accompanies pregnancy and childbirth for all women is particularly potent and potentially dangerous for those with psychiatric ills.
“Amy did not mean to do it,” Richard Kern said of the killings. “She just listened to those voices again.”