ILLINOIS, USA — In September, Paula Sims will get a chance at something many people in the St. Louis region never thought she would: freedom.
She became a household name in the 1980s after she was convicted of killing her two infant daughters three years apart, and trying to claim someone abducted them.
At trial, she denied killing them. But later said she did so due to postpartem psychosis – a term that was new to the area, and to society.
She was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
But this week, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted Sims’ request for a parole hearing, which is now scheduled for September.
Jed Stone has been her attorney since the late 1990s.
“I’m a parent and a grandparent in addition to being a lawyer, so the killing of a child is deeply troubling,” he said. “Very few of my cases over 45 years are whodunit cases, most of them are how come they done it cases?
“And in the case of Paula Sims, the how come she done it is so clearly shown in something called postpartum psychosis. It is so clear to me that the answer to the, ‘How come she done it?’ was the presence of a debilitating horrible mental illness called post-partem psychosis. Once you get that piece of the puzzle figured out, it seemed cruel to keep her locked up after so many years.”
In 1986, Sims claimed someone had abducted her daughter Loralei from her Jersey County home.
“He was going to kill me, I was in such shock, I didn’t know he was going to take my baby,” she told reporters at the time. “I just did what he said.”
Police launched a massive search.
Pat Gauen was a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time.
“It just riveted news coverage in St. Louis like I rarely have ever seen for any case on either side of the river,” he recalled.
Ten days later, the baby’s remains were found 150 feet behind the Sims’ home.
She was so badly decomposed that a cause of death couldn’t be determined. No one was ever charged.
“An awful lot of people suspected the parents might be involved," Gauen recalled.
Three years later, police were called to the Sims’ home in Alton.
It had happened again.
Sims claimed a gunman took her 6-week-old daughter, Heather. Her 15-month-old son was unharmed. Four days later, Heather’s body was found in a trash can in West Alton.
Alton Police Sgt. Rick McCain said then the cause of death was asphyxiation, and the investigation turned toward the parents.
The community started speculating, Gauen said.
“She has claimed and some evidence has indicated her husband didn't like little girls and she may have acted in a way to keep him satisfied,” Gauen said.
Baby Heather was buried and soon Paula Sims was charged with the death of her first daughter, Loralei.
Two months later, she was indicted for Heather’s murder.
St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case’s testimony proved pivotal in poking a hole in Paula Sims’ story. She claimed the abductor knocked her unconscious before taking Heather, but Case told investigators if she claims she remembers being knocked unconscious or anything in the immediate aftermath of that blow, she’s lying, Gauen recalled.
In 1990, she ultimately confessed to killing both babies.
Gauen was there when Simms tried to get a new trial and use a post-partem psychosis as her defense.
“She was almost like a wax figure,” he said. “She didn't change expression, she did not speak.
“She appeared to be in a daze. Her whole demeanor from her posture to her eye contact. It was like she was just in a state of disconnect.”
The judge denied her request for a new trial.
“He explained to her that in a murder case, you don't get to do trial and error, you can't say, ‘Well I didn't do it all,’ and then get convicted and come back and say, ‘Well I did do it but I had a reason,’” Gauen said.
She was to remain in prison for the rest of her life without a chance at parole.
In 2006, 5 On Your Side’s Kay Quinn interviewed Paula Sims in prison.
“I just want to bring awareness, and this is real … and I’m not some monster,” Sims told Quinn.
But everything changed this week after Pritzker announced he was giving Sims a hearing before the parole board.
Stone is preparing to represent her during the September hearing.
“She's fully recovered, she's past the age of child bearing years, she's 61 or 62 years old, she's no threat to the public, she's been a model prisoner,” he said. “It's just time to grant her parole.”
Stone said Sims has become an artist during her time behind bars, and has sent him drawings through the years.
Her husband and son were killed in a car accident while she was incarcerated, but friends who have remained by her side have said they will let her move in with them in southern Illinois, Stone said.
“Don't for a minute think that I'm saying this is a get out of jail free card,” Stone said. “What I'm saying is she was punished.
“She is being punished. That punishment was deserved because the crime was horrific. And if we understand who she was at the time, I think a rational person can come to the conclusion that enough is enough in terms of punishment and we should let Paula out. “
She’s also mentored other young women dealing with trauma at the Logan Correctional Center.
“She counsels young women about coming to grips with the horrors of their acts and trying to figure out ways to heal that,” Stone said.
And she is deeply devout in her Christian faith, Stone said.
“She's a religious woman and she believes with her heart in redemption of the soul,” Stone said. “As a society, we talk about redemption a lot.
“I mean, every Sunday, Christians go to church and every Saturday Jews go to synagogue and we hear about redemption. But, you know, we don't live it very much. We don't make it part of our daily lives. We give good lip service to it. But I'm asking the Prison Review Board to make redemption part of their daily lives and grant redemption to a woman who deserves it.”