Editor’s note: This article may disturb some readers. It describes self-harm and violence against a young child. If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988.
It’s hard to imagine anything other than insanity driving Kimberlynn Bolaños’s gruesome act on the morning of May 30, 2013.
Bolaños, 21 at the time, believed there were people who wanted to torture her and her 5-month-old, a psychiatrist said. Fearing for their safety, she moved with him to a hotel on Chicago’s North Side. After a night with the baby’s father there, she took the infant with her into the hotel room’s bathroom, locked the door, and then stabbed him 44 times and stabbed herself 25 times.
Bolaños, according to her mother, loved her baby and cared for him well. But, she said, the family had a history of mental illness.
Bolaños herself had attempted suicide several times and suffered from untreated schizophrenia, according to the psychiatrist, who evaluated her after the killing and said she was struck with postpartum psychosis.
But the attorneys and judge in Bolaños’s criminal case allowed her to drop an insanity defense and instead plead “guilty but mentally ill” to first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 38 years in prison.
Bolaños ended up in a downstate Illinois prison, where her mental condition led her to remove her eyes from their sockets.
A post-conviction petition filed for Bolaños informed the judge of that self-mutilation and claimed she had not been fit to plead guilty. The judge dismissed the petition as “frivolous and patently without merit.”
Now a three-judge Illinois Appellate Court panel has reversed him, keeping alive an effort to get Bolaños out of prison.
“She gouged out both of her eyes,” the panel wrote. “A mental illness so severe as to lead one to carry out such an act would, at the very least, have the power to distract a defendant in the courtroom.”
Bolaños, now 30, has served more than nine years in jail and prison. She is ineligible for parole until 2051. She is fighting to get out — a fight she might not have to wage if she lived in one of the more than two dozen countries, including Canada, that recognize the role of postpartum psychosis when mothers kill their infants, experts say.
Robert A. Loeb, a veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor, said unanswered questions include whether Bolaños had ineffective assistance of counsel when she pleaded guilty, whether the self-harm in prison strengthens her claim that she was unfit to make that plea, and whether she was insane during the killing in the first place.
Someone who was sane while committing a crime, Loeb said, “can go insane from being incarcerated. That’s a reason to have a hearing now. When did she become insane?”
Bolaños’s mental illness dates back to her early teens, when she obsessed over germs and locks, began cutting herself, ran away from home, developed an eating disorder and was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, according to a report for her defense by Dr. Roni Seltzberg, a psychiatrist who worked nearly two decades in Cook County Circuit Court’s Forensic Clinical Services.
Bolaños believed that people could hear her thoughts and that God compelled her to write books that would be printed to help African countries, the report said. She once jumped from a car to scream at people at a bus stop because she thought she was being followed. She also screamed at airplanes.
After graduating from Amundsen High School on the North Side in 2010, Bolaños engaged in prostitution and injected wasp poison into her heart, among several suicide attempts, Seltzberg reported.
At age 20, Bolaños gave birth to a son, Isaac.
In May 2013, Bolaños believed that members of her family were being tortured and Isaac was in danger, Setlzberg wrote. She moved with the baby into the Diplomat Motel, 5230 N. Lincoln Ave., where she heard screaming at night and slept with a knife.
The morning they woke up with Isaac’s father, Bolaños put the baby into his car seat and carried him into the bathroom. She told the father to wait outside the door while she took a shower, court records say.
Bolaños believed she “would never see Isaac again if she didn’t kill him before the torturers came in,” Seltzberg reported. “She said she’d see him in heaven” and stabbed him in the heart and lung “so he could die fast.”
Bolaños’s wounds, from stabbing herself, drained about three liters of her blood, the report said.
At the hospital, the day after the incident, a psychiatrist who evaluated Bolaños concluded she was psychotic, according to court records.
When Bolaños was taken to Cook County Jail, she was admitted to its infirmary for psychiatric treatment. An intake worker found her to be “disorganized and delusional,” according to Seltzberg. Psychiatrists diagnosed her with schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis.
In December 2013, Seltzberg diagnosed Bolaños with “schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, multiple episodes, currently in partial remission” and reported a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Seltzberg concluded Bolaños was legally insane during the stabbing. Illinois’ criminal code defines insanity as lacking “substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality” of the conduct due to a “mental disease or defect.”
Seltzberg also found that Bolaños was incapable of understanding the Miranda warnings that police gave her.
But psychiatrists who examined Bolaños for the prosecutors in 2014 found she was sane during the killing and could comprehend the Miranda warnings.
Prosecutors also alleged that Bolaños did not actually plan to kill herself in four suicide attempts, court records say.
A psychiatrist who evaluated Bolaños in 2016 said she told him that, as soon as she started stabbing Isaac, she regretted it — showing she knew what she was doing.
On Oct. 25, 2016, more than three years after her arrest, Bolaños’s attorneys negotiated an agreement in which they would abandon an insanity defense and she would plead “guilty but mentally ill.”
That plea leads to “a prison sentence with aspirations of treatment, most of which [the Illinois Department of Corrections] isn’t equipped to provide,” said criminal defense attorney Andrea Lyon, a former Valparaiso University Law School dean.
As part of the deal, according to court records, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Charles P. Burns offered the 38-year prison sentence.
Bolaños accepted it.
A spokesperson for the county Public Defender’s Office, which represented Bolaños, declined to answer whether her attorneys, Gina Piemonte and Sandra Parris, believed she was mentally fit to plead guilty and whether they advised her to.
“If [Bolaños] didn’t have an understanding that she would do murder time after ‘guilty but mentally ill’ because the defense attorney didn’t explain it well enough, that would absolutely be ineffective assistance,” Loeb said.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Bolaños, and Jennifer F. Coleman, the prosecutor who negotiated the plea agreement, both declined to comment on the case.
Bolaños was sent to Logan Correctional Center, a prison for women, in downstate Lincoln.
Psychiatrists there diagnosed her with mental disorders including schizophrenia but failed to make sure she was taking her medications, according to a lawsuit filed for her against prison officials.
In their written answer to the lawsuit, the officials deny that claim.
On June 6, 2017, Bolaños ran across a prison yard toward a fence, yelling “Shoot me, shoot me.” The incident led prison staff members and a contracted medical provider to move Bolaños to a “crisis watch” cell that resembled solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.
“They used ‘crisis watch’ to isolate and contain people experiencing serious mental health crises, but not to actually provide them with needed treatment,” the attorneys alleged.
The answer to the lawsuit denies that claim.
Five days later — on June 11, 2017, according to the suit — Bolaños removed both her eyes.
A nurse who arrived saw Bolaños’s face, legs and feet covered in blood, her attorneys wrote.
An IDOC spokesperson declined to comment on whether the prison’s care for Bolaños was proper and whether the prison could have prevented the incident.
Medical experts say untreated postpartum psychosis increases the risks of both infanticide and suicide.
Women such as Bolaños — who have a history of mental illness or have mental illness in their family — face higher risks of postpartum psychosis, according to Dr. Susan Benjamin Feingold, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in perinatal disorders.
“Delusions and hallucinations certainly are hallmarks of psychosis,” Feingold said. “When someone is insane … they’re not responsible for their behavior.”
Feingold said Bolaños is among an estimated 20 women imprisoned at Logan for killing their child due to postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. That unofficial estimate stems from Feingold’s work with women in the facility.
Dozens of countries provide leniency for mothers who kill their babies. The century-old British Infanticide Act, as amended in 1938, applies to a woman who kills her younger-than-1-year-old child when “the balance of her mind was disturbed” by the birth or lactation. Canada enacted a similar law in 1948.
“It’s assumed that she’s not of her right mind,” Feingold said. “She gets treatment and she gets rehabilitation, rather than in the U.S., where many of these women spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
Feingold helped shepherd into law a 2018 measure that made Illinois the first state to allow judges to consider postpartum psychosis during sentencing. In some cases, the law also enables mothers in prison for infanticide to be resentenced.
But Bolaños could be headed in another direction. A petition filed for her in October 2019 gives her a shot at getting her conviction thrown out altogether.
The four-page handwritten petition, filed without an attorney, says Bolaños “maintains that her mental illness makes her not guilty by reason of insanity” and claims she was still suffering from mental illness when she pleaded guilty and was “thus incapable of making an informed decision and defending herself properly.”
Due to the autoenucleation in prison, the petition says, Bolaños is “now permanently 100% blind.”
Burns, the judge, summarily dismissed the petition in January 2020. His 11-page ruling did not mention her self-mutilation but did focus on the method by which she killed her infant.
“There were 30 stab wounds to the head. There were 12 stab wounds to the chest and there was one large gaping wound to Isaac’s neck,” Burns wrote. “His neck had been slashed from ear to ear.”
The judge wrote about Bolaños confessing and insisted he had considered the finding by Seltzberg, the defense psychiatrist, that the mother “was unable to appreciate the criminality of her conduct,” a reference to legal insanity.
But Burns wrote that psychiatrists for the state had found Bolaños was legally sane. He added that Seltzberg herself had opined that Bolaños was “legally fit to stand trial with medication.”
Burns wrote that Bolaños “waived her right to a trial” and accepted “a fully negotiated plea abetted by the state, defense and this court.” The judge, deploying italics and boldface, emphasized he held a “lengthy hearing before accepting petitioner’s voluntary plea of guilty but mentally ill.”
Illinois adopted its “guilty but mentally ill” statute in 1981 after John Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s attorneys were planning the insanity defense that led to his 1982 not-guilty verdict.
In Illinois, the new law provided a tougher alternative to “not guilty by reason of insanity” and raised expectations that IDOC would provide adequate treatment to people who were sent to prison with severe mental illness — expectations that have gone unmet, according to experts.
“It’s not a break,” Feingold said. “They still have to serve their whole sentence.”
What could happen from here
After Burns dismissed her post-conviction petition, Bolaños appealed and got assistance from a state appellate defender. That attorney, Bryon M. Reina, argued that her petition presented what was necessary: “the gist of a constitutional claim that she was unfit to plead guilty.”
The appellate ruling was delivered by Justice Terrence J. Lavin. Justices James Fitzgerald Smith and Cynthia Y. Cobbs concurred. It reversed Burns’ dismissal of the petition, saying he “did not specifically address [Bolaños’s] assertion that she was unfit to plead guilty.”
“We find [that the] defendant’s contention that she was unfit to plead guilty does not lack an arguable basis in law or fact,” the ruling says, pointing out instances in which the record shows Burns voicing concern from the bench that Bolaños might not be tracking the proceedings.
Psychiatrists who examined Bolaños during the criminal case would not have known that her mental condition was so intense it could drive her to remove her eyes, the ruling says.
Burns did not respond to requests for comment about his reversal by the appellate panel and whether he could have done more to get Bolaños the treatment she needed.
Now the case returns to Burns. The Cook County Public Defender’s Office is expected to represent Bolaños again. The office, now led by Sharone Mitchell Jr., can amend her petition.
Loeb, the long-time defense attorney, said the vast majority of post-conviction petitions fail.
But Bolaños’s petition could succeed, he said, “because too many things sound like she was unfit and insane.”
If Bolaños’s guilty plea were thrown out, she would not likely walk free anytime soon.
Prosecutors could insist on a trial.
Lyon, the former law school dean, said if Bolaños’s attorneys stuck to an insanity defense, the judge probably would not allow them to tell the jurors an acquittal would lead to lengthy confinement in a state mental hospital.
Lyon said the jurors wouldn’t buy an insanity defense if it “feels like defendant is getting away with murder.”