There’s an image stuck in my brain that’s been haunting me. It’s a matter of public record, and has even been published in the New York Times, but it’s my instinct to refrain from describing it here. On the off chance that you haven’t read much about the Krim children, Lucia and Leo, 6 and 2, who were stabbed to death by their nanny of over two years, Yoselyn Ortega, in their parents’ Upper West Side apartment on October 25, 2012, I’d rather spare you the details.
Even just hearing about the butchery of the Krim children, as I did for the better part of two months, was enough to get to me, even though I never saw the actual photos of it. On the third day of the trial, March 5, jurors were shown pictures of the murder scene, of Lulu and Leo’s lifeless bodies face-up in a bathtub. Some openly wept. On day four, a juror was dismissed after he told the judge he no longer felt he could be fair. During jury selection, several potentials argued the impossibility of their impartiality. Some were excused, others weren’t so fortunate.
I attended almost every day of Ortega’s murder trial. It was alternately straightforward and mind-twisting, unbearably sad and then farcically bizarre. But it was almost entirely without suspense. Everyone in the courtroom agreed that on October 25, 2012, Ortega killed Leo and Lulu in their bathroom while their mother, Marina Krim, took their older sibling, Nessie, to a swim lesson. After their mother returned and saw her children dead in the bathtub, Ortega plunged the knife she was holding into her own throat twice. She did this with such force that she broke two of the bones in her neck.
Kevin Krim, Lulu and Leo’s father, flew into New York from San Francisco that day. He testified that after he touched down, he saw text after text roll in from friends and his kids’ classmates’ parents, asking what was going on. The flight crew announced that the NYPD needed to pull someone off the plane once they reached the gate. He was escorted from JFK airport to St. Luke’s Hospital, but given little information. It wasn’t until he arrived there that he learned which of his children were dead.
There was never a question as to whether Ortega killed the children—children whom her sister Miladys Garcia said Ortega once loved so much, she’d claim she had “cuatro hijos,” or four children (the three Krim kids and Ortega’s biological child, Jesus Frias). The question was what was going on in her head when she did it.
The range of trial outcomes was small—Ortega, charged with two counts of first-degree and two counts of second-degree murder, faced life in prison or unspecified time in a forensic hospital that could also span the rest of her life. Years of hearings and motions leading to a month and a half of testimonies all to give Yoselyn Ortega the slimmest shred of hope that she might one day walk free. (She rejected a plea deal in 2016 that would have given her a sentence of 30 years to life, and the possibility of parole, if the 55-year-old happened to live long enough to get there.) Life in a mental hospital, which is effectively what her defense sought, would, in all likelihood, scarcely have been better (and possibly worse) than prison. On April 18, after a day and a half of jury deliberations, she was found guilty of all four counts of murder. She is set to be sentenced on May 14.
Ortega did not take the stand in her own defense, so could not explain exactly what was going on in her mind at the time of the murders. We heard from her through witnesses, including the testimony of NYPD Sgt. Yoel Hidalgo, who said that when Ortega came to the night of October 27, 2012, two days after the murder, she signaled to him as he watched over her in the hospital that she had a statement. By whispering and pointing to letters on a chart, Hidalgo was able to slowly extract it: Ortega, by Hidalgo’s written account (and ensuing testimony) did not express any remorse, but instead complained about her employer Marina Krim regularly changing her work hours and asking her to clean in addition to her babysitting duties. She mentioned no memory of killing the children. To this day, she has not said to any of the dozens of people that testified—family members, friends, doctors—that she remembers what she did.
So we—the jurors, the assembled onlookers, the reporting pool—sat and soaked in our misery. Was this a case of a poor woman who was smarting after a few tense interactions with her affluent employer, and resentful of what the Krims had, as the prosecution suggested? Was Yoselyn Ortega psychotic, driven away from treatment by pervading stigma in the Dominican culture in which she was raised, and toward murder by voices or even the devil, as the defense attempted to prove? Was there even much of a distinction? Isn’t anyone who’d murder the innocents she’d been looking after and loving for over two years insane by any measure?
Like a lot of people following Ortega’s trial, I came to New York State Supreme Court Part 32 in lower Manhattan trying to figure out what questions it would ask us about how we live among each other, and anxious about the answers it might provide. I knew going in that this case was about a whole lot more than class, mental illness, or cultural barriers. It was about more than, in tabloid parlance, the “killer nanny,” a description whose cartoonish pithiness I’d come to loathe. The case against Yoselyn Ortega spoke to our primal fears of losing someone you love, the death of children, betrayal by a person that you’ve trusted enough to enter your home and become a de facto member of your family. It even spoke, as was the case with Kevin Krim’s testimony, to the fears that technology fosters. Above all, it was a reminder that every day is one closer to life-upending tragedy, that you can never be certain when it will strike and with what degree of force.
I’ve memorized most of the jurors’ faces. There was the woman I swear I’ve met before, with long brown hair and dreamy, longing eyes like those of a 16-year-old singing a song she wrote about her life. There was the woman who reminded me of a sad cat. There was the woman who stuffed Kleenex into her long sleeves, letting the tissues hang out a bit for easier access I suppose. The woman with a butch silver haircut and never any makeup. The Southerner who wore a blanket sometimes.
I only knew she was Southern because I heard her accent in the security line as the jury reentered the court building after lunch one day. The press couldn’t interact with the jury or talk about the case in front of them for fear of interfering with their judgment. Sometimes I’d be talking with another reporter and a juror would cross our path, genuinely shocking me. Whenever this would happen, the other reporter and I immediately shut up and turned to walk in the opposite direction. But I rarely saw any of them outside the courtroom, and it was hard to imagine what form their lives were taking outside of this. To me, they were mostly people plucked out of reality and stuck in a box in a courtroom whose temperature seemed engineered to be as uncomfortable as possible. It was either too hot or too cold always, and sometimes a drafty, seemingly impossible mix of the two.
The trial took place at end of one of the coldest, snowiest, most persistent winters in New York memory. The air was full of frustration, pushing winter like it was trying to sell something it knew we already had plenty of. The buildings that line Centre Street below Canal, where the New York State Criminal Court is located, created a wind tunnel. The lobby of the court building and its generally slow-moving security line became another wind tunnel when the line stretched out the door and people held it open. It’s never a good time to think about dead babies, but the lingering days of a stubborn winter must be among the very worst.
The jury’s task was beyond unenviable—it was humanly impossible. After Kevin Krim’s testimony wrapped on March 13, Judge Carro delivered a monologue reminding them to unlearn the skills they’ve likely used in every other fraught situation in their lives:
Remember when we started selecting a jury and in the beginning of this case, I gave you certain instructions and I told you what your duties were as jurors. Essentially your job as a jury is to evaluate the evidence, glean whatever facts you can from that evidence, whatever inferences and conclusions that flow from the facts you can find, which are logical and reasonable and based on the evidence, and after that, you determine what the facts are, and apply the law. But you’ll recall I said things like: prejudice, bias, and most certainly sympathy have to play no part in that fact-finding. You all know there was going to be some emotional testimony in this case, and that’s why we emphasized, you’re going to feel sympathy and emotions, it’s natural, but you’ve got to set those aside. Only find facts in your evaluation of the evidence.
The week after Judge Carro told them to set aside their sympathy, he told them to turn off their Spanish comprehension. On March 19, as the defense counsel began to call their Spanish-speaking witnesses, Judge Carro informed the jurors that, “The only recorded evidence is the English translation and that’s what you have to go by.” If they understood Spanish they were to somehow force their brains not to process it, and only listen to its English translation, even if they knew it was erroneous. Another impossible burden.
Every day, multiple times a day, before they left the courtroom, Judge Carro reminded the jurors not to discuss the case. That’s eight weeks of testimony they’ve had to carry with them alone. I can’t imagine; I’ve been talking about this so much that my boyfriend told me in early April that he was sick of hearing about it—not that it stopped me. I have a sort of secret language at this point with another reporter who was covering it; we talked about it at court and then at lunch and then after court over drinks, and then we’d text about it. This piece could easily have been three times longer.
The day the jury entered deliberations, the six alternates were set free. Three seemed to evaporate as soon as they left the courtroom, but three remained at the courthouse. Chloe Beck, 31, was by then a sponge of information and empathy beyond her saturation point; she talked and talked and talked to the press that lined up outside Part 32. I asked about the emotional toll of sitting through this case.
“I really think that in cases like this there needs to be an on-call therapist for the jurors because we’re not allowed to talk about this,” said Beck. “I’ve had to sit in my apartment and just cry. I go through the motions of how did this happen? Who’s to blame? Why did this happen?” Things she enjoyed or never thought twice about—taking a bath, cutting flowers’ stems with a knife, seeing children in the park with their nannies—now have an uncomfortable significance.
“This person you brought into your home, you trusted, you traveled [with], you did all this stuff with, but you really didn’t know them,” Beck reflected. “And that for me makes me think about all my relationships and how I choose to trust.”
Then there was Yoselyn Ortega, at whom it was impossible not to gawk. In court, she generally wore one of a few shades of gray. One day she wore magenta. She wore it again the day the jury delivered its verdict. Almost always, her hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a small, beige scrunchie. Sometimes, to watch a witness testify or look at an exhibit, she’d angle her head to the left, revealing to the gallery her determined brow, that protruding lower lip, those deep nasolabial trenches. But when things got grim, as they were prone to, Ortega sat, head straight up, seemingly impenetrable to the subject matter, as if to put her detachment on display. She did not ever visibly cry about Lulu and Leo.
I found this disgustingly cowardly. She couldn’t even face what she did. (Marina Krim famously screamed at Ortega during her testimony during the first two days of the trial. “You’re a piece of work!” she told Ortega. “You’re evil… You’re evil! And you like this. You’re getting pleasure.”) I tried to remind myself that a person capable of killing children with her hands isn’t operating with the same mental capacity as I am, probably isn’t employing the same logic that I do, but I couldn’t help but judge her against my standards of decency and be furious at her failure to meet them. Trauma, mental illness, and whatever else was going on with Ortega’s head may have impeded her recall, but the self-obsession was consistent. It’s hard to imagine an act more selfish or entitled than taking children away from their parents permanently.
In the courtroom, Ortega was something like a monster who cameos in her own movie; she didn’t need to do much for her presence to be felt. Her every move was significant. When she cried for the first time during the trial, at least as far as press could detect, it made headlines in the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and The Cut. It was mentioned in the New York Times report on March 16, day 11 of the trial. Ortega’s sadness was finally palpable on that day during the psychologist Dr. Marc Dubin’s testimony. Dubin was among the earliest in the long line of mental health professionals who evaluated Ortega. He met with her 11 days after the murders while she was still being held at New York Presbyterian’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, recovering from her self-inflicted wounds. In the courtroom, she cried as he recounted her discussion of missing her family.
Her agitation was palpable during the testimony of fellow nanny Chelsea Andrews, on March 22 (day 13 of the trial). On the stand, Andrews claimed she saw Ortega at the La Escuelita school, where Lulu went, the day before the murders. After dropping Lulu off, Ortega sat on a bench with her head hung, according to Andrews, and when Andrews approached and asked what was wrong, Ortega said, “Mucho trabajo, poquito dinero,” which Andrews translated as “A lot of work, little money.”
Ortega seemed absorbed in this testimony, frequently turning her head to watch the direct exam of her attorney, Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg, and Andrews’s answers. She scowled, she pointed, she stage-whispered, “I never said that; she said that.” Despite the fact that Andrews was a defense witness, when prosecutor Stuart Silberg ultimately impeached parts of her testimony, Ortega seemed pleased. For a moment, it seemed almost like she was rooting for the other side.
Ortega maintained her rapt involvement as other witnesses were called: her 80-year-old neighbor at 610 Riverside Drive, Francisca Corniel, and Francisca’s son Christian Corniel, who ran into what he described as a thin and seemingly sleep-deprived Ortega at 610 Riverside during the month leading up to the murders. Later that day, the defense called Officer Luis Sandoval, who responded to the 1010 call on the day of the murder. Sandoval photographed the scene, before Ortega’s body with its self-inflicted wounds was carried out on a stretcher and shuttled away in an ambulance. During his testimony, the defense displayed on screen pictures of Ortega looking like a dropped doll, more hard evidence of what she had done. The defendant resumed her straight-ahead stare.
“I’m so confused,” I heard Yoselyn Ortega’s attorney, Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg, cry out one day during a sidebar with the judge. I could relate. Van Leer-Greenberg’s methods were mysterious, if I’m being generous. They were rarely not confusing. Once, when discussing Ortega’s mental state leading up to the murders, she asked her witness, “Is it also consistent with the fact that she was leaking so bad, she couldn’t control the voices that were commanding her?”
“Judge?” called assistant district attorney Courtney Groves to object.
“I don’t understand that question,” admitted Carro, visibly baffled.
This kind of thing happened a lot. Often when the prosecution was calling its witnesses, Van Leer-Geenberg seemed to think that the best way to show she was doing her job was to be adversarial with those on the stand. But then she would also call objections to claim Silberg was arguing with her witnesses.
Silberg could also be combative—he rattled defense team psychiatrist Dr. Karen Rosenbaum during his days-long cross examination of her. “Mr. Silberg, you don’t need to yell,” she said at one point. “We’re both just trying to do our jobs.” But whereas Silberg’s demeanor and frame made him a wrecking ball in a boxy suit, Van Leer-Greenberg zig-zagged like a jackhammer let go. Silberg’s partner, assistant D.A. Courtney Groves was the most convincingly human in her questioning, while Van Leer-Greenberg’s son Evan Van Leer-Greenberg was I guess her partner, though he never examined a witness. He’d take notes, sometimes handing his mom prompts on Post-Its during her examinations.
I should probably now admit that I’m fascinated by Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg. She is the kind lawyer who starts questions with, “And isn’t it a further fact that…” She called a tongue depressor an “ice cream stick.” She described a room in the D.A.’s office where Ortega was interviewed in July 2016 as “hot as a cat on a hot tin roof, right?” Her summation included the sentence: “The inconsistencies are the hobgoblins of her mental state.” At various points during the trial, she referred to her client as “Yoselyn,” “Josie,” “Yose-a-leen,” “Yo-sie,” and “Yossie.” (Various witnesses have referred to Yoselyn by her nickname “Josie” and, in Spanish pronunciation, “Yose-a-leen.” I’ve never heard anyone but Van Leer-Greenberg, though, call her the last two on that list.)
Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg addressed Raquel Perez, a the Spanish-speaking witness who’s known Ortega for years and spent time with her in the days before the murders, slowly, like this: “How...old...are...you???” Perez, like many of the defense’s witnesses, relied on a Spanish-speaking interpreter to translate the lawyers’ English to her, and clearly no slow-talking was needed. When one of the court reporters missed the name of Officer Earland Minney, another responder to the crime scene, she cried out in her persistent New Yawk-area honk, “Minney! Like Minnie the Moocher! Minney!” I saw two jurors exchange raised-eyebrow looks of befuddlement at the by now obscure Betty Boop reference.
Van Leer-Greenberg was the only major player with any evident flair for fashion, and her style choices for a trial about the deaths of two children never failed to surprise me. On the fourth day of the trial she wore a leopard-print top and matching heels. On day five, her ruffled shirt reminded me of Purple Rain-era Prince. On day 20, her top bore a strong resemblance to a doily. She wore burgundy—nearly purple—lipstick and a nameplate necklace. She is 66 years old. Her hair is an ombre of gray to beige blonde. It looks like something that could be bundled up with a leather cord and stood up as a decoration in a country bathroom.
Van Leer-Greenberg at times reminded me of a cartoon lawyer, with all of the objections she called. On April 3, day 19, before the jury was brought back into the courtroom for the afternoon, Silberg complained that Van Leer-Greenberg’s objections were distracting the defense expert Dr. Karen Rosenbaum, whom he was still cross-examining. In the next two hours, Van Leer-Greenberg would object nearly 60 more times. About five of them were sustained.
After a few weeks of the trial had passed, Judge Carro seemed exasperated by all of the lawyers, who had by then taken to squabbling like family whose hatred for one another was sharpened by how well they knew each other. Judge Carro repeatedly told the prosecution and defense teams to stop fighting in front of the jury. “One word-objections. Don’t argue in front of the jury and don’t speak over each other,” he said, on March 15. On March 19 after some back-and-forth between Silberg and Van Leer-Greenberg over him questioning her witness about being subpoenaed, Judge Carro turned to the jury and spat, “You know, you have to disregard any colloquy between the two lawyers, okay? It’s not evidence, it’s improper, and it shouldn’t happen.” (Then again, everyone hates everyone, until they don’t—one morning, the members of both counsels discussed the gooey goodness of Insomnia Cookies with the court reporter.)
Van Leer-Greenberg could star in whatever reality show would cast her. She could birth a thousand memes. Gifs of her retrieving the papers flying off her podium could accompany tweets, “Me, when I’m trying to convince you I’m a professional.” She is an icon-in-waiting.
But this was not a reality show and whatever unintentional comic relief Van Leer-Greenberg’s ball of confusion offered wasn’t really relief for very long. Van Leer-Greenberg steadily objected as Kevin Krim testified about losing his children, including when he was describing what was special about them: Lulu would be “the first one to hug me when I got home and…”
Leo “had these deep, serious…”
“…these deep, serious acorn eyes and he just saw the world and he noticed everything.”
Van Leer-Greenberg interrupted with severity as Krim described the trauma of his daughter Nessie (the only child survivor of the Krim family after Ortega’s massacre, though the Krims went on to have two more kids). He said, “She was scared of the bathroom, she was scared of the dark for a long time, but she’s really tough…” Here Van Leer-Greenberg shouted out, “Judge: 280.10,” referencing the code to motion for a mistrial. She did that again when Krim discussed the Lulu & Leo Fund that he and Marina established to promote creativity and commemorate their slain children.
“Please let me finish!” Krim shot back at Van Leer-Greenberg. Krim continued his testimony, describing his final moments with Lulu’s and Leo’s bodies at St. Luke’s. “We got to some room and Lulu and Leo were lying on some tables, you know, hospital beds or whatever, covered in sheets up to their chins,” he said. “And they looked…” Here his voice broke. “…Beautiful and strange. I mean, they were the wrong color. They didn’t have any blood left in ‘em so they were bluish. They still had this perfect skin, their long eyelashes, and their eyes were closed. They had this sandy brown hair that was kind of light-ish and you could see [hospital staff] tried really hard to wash the blood out, but there was still a kind of auburn tint to it that I remember to this day.
“And I got down on my knees and I said,” he recalled, weeping at this point. “‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I love you’ and I kissed ‘em. Said goodbye. And it’s… it’s worse than you imagine. It’s worse.”
I teared up while he shared this—from 20 or 30 feet away, a quick glance at the jury confirmed I wasn’t the only one in the room who was moved to tears. Far from it. I didn’t want to survey for too long—it seemed rude at that moment to gawk at people who were ordered by law to sit there and absorb all this. After court let out that day, I left feeling more drained than I had anticipated. I felt like I’d had one of those howlingly sad cries that leaves you feeling like you’ve been hit in the face, or that your skin has been pried from your skull and left suspended a few inches.
In 2016, Ortega claimed to a psychiatrist hired by the prosecution that on October 25, 2012, “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me... I was not myself.” Who was she then? The defense’s case, in its regularly garbled presentation, asked us to hold several things at once in our heads about Yoselyn Ortega, someone most people reflexively consider a monster. Separating this woman from her demons is an impossibly tall order—ask anyone (start with the Krims) and if they know who Yoselyn Ortega is, they’ll tell you she is the demon. Even her own lawyer thought so, per a line in Van Leer-Greenberg’s closing statement: “She who is fighting demons could not see to it that she did not become a demon.”
Whether she was malingering—fabricating her symptoms of hearing voices and seeing the devil so as to get away with murder—was a topic of many questions posed to the doctors who evaluated her. There were even some who believed that she wasn’t malingering and still deemed her unreliable. The defense’s Dr. Rosenbaum interviewed Ortega 13 times before the trial, starting in 2013, for a cumulative total of 27.5 hours, during which Ortega “told me different things all the time.” She offered the opinion that Ortega minimized her mental illness, that she’d have to ask specific questions about voices in order to get Ortega to admit to hearing them. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, also hired by the defense, and a star witness of sorts (he’s previously testified in high-profile cases like those of the Unabomber and Andrea Yates), said of Ortega, “I wouldn’t say she is precise and you can rely on her.”
Ortega’s elusiveness in this case owed mostly to the fact that she never took the stand. The vast majority of our information about Ortega came from her family and friends, the Krims, her doctors, and people who barely knew her—people who just happened to be unlucky enough to encounter her on October 25, 2012 (including the Krims’ building’s doorman and super, as well as a neighbor).
For a variety of reasons, these people proved themselves to be their own kinds of unreliable narrators. The case was covered in layers of distortion. White noise drowned out white noise. How then could anyone be sure that anything they were hearing was real?
To boot, a huge part of this trial focused on the hallucinatory voices Ortega supposedly heard. That meant that in the most barrier-laden testimonies, we heard an interpreter saying what the witness said the defendant said Satan was saying to her.
The only time we heard Ortega speak at length was on Day 22 (April 9), when footage from evaluations with the prosecution’s witness Dr. Ali Khadivi was played onscreen. Both evaluations took place in July 2016, months after her lawyers indicated they planned on employing the insanity defense (according to reporting in the New York Times) and years after Ortega first claimed she’d been driven by the devil to kill Lulu and Leo Krim. In the interview, which Dr. Khadivi pointed out was filmed after Ortega had been taken off antipsychotic medication, and her delirium had subsided, Yoselyn Ortega flatly denied being influenced by voices or “the devil.”
“Any recollection of hearing a voice or voices telling you to kill the children?” asked Khadivi in the footage played for the court.
“No,” said Ortega.
“Ever?” asked Khadivi.
“No... I loved the children very much. A lot.”
“So you never received any instruction or voices that today’s the day to kill the children?”
And then later:
“You never saw a devil?”
“Had a visual image of the devil?”
“Did you ever experience seeing men in black appearing?”
“Is it fair to say that in September until the time of the incident you were not hearing any kind of voices telling you to kill people or harm yourself?”
“Or experiencing the devil taking over your body?”
Ortega answered many of these questions with a knit brow, as if Khadivi were the crazy one.
Defense team psychiatrists Rosenbaum and Resnick, meanwhile, declined to record any of their interviews with Ortega, including those in which she described being possessed. Nor did they hire a stenographer to transcribe them. “I don’t routinely record things,” explained Dr. Resnick, a slightly hunched octogenarian who otherwise sounded sharp. Thus the jury for this insanity case never got to see Ortega make her most insane claims.
As satisfying as it was to hear Yoselyn Ortega disavow the rather outlandish defense of being possessed by the devil, confusion quickly trumped catharsis. If Ortega was as clearheaded as Khadivi claimed, why was she rebuking the potential proof of her insanity after her counsel indicated she would be entering the not guilty by reason of insanity plea? Is that not sort of insane in itself? And couldn’t this have been an example of her minimizing her symptoms, as the other side’s Rosenbaum said she was prone to doing? It seemed almost sadistically discombobulating.
Even more confusing: Khadivi said Yoselyn told him she did not remember speaking with Dr. Resnick, with whom she had discussed the voices. Whereas Ortega told Dr. Rosenbaum that she remembered Marina Krim entering the bathroom before stabbing herself on October 25, 2012, to Khadivi she said she had no memory at all of the entire bloody incident. “It’s not uncommon not to remember the crime; it’s extremely uncommon to remember it and then forget it,” explained Khadivi, when he took the stand. While Resnick called this “patchy amnesia” (not a clinical term), Silberg referred to it as “convenient amnesia” in his summation.
Also unusual, according to Khadivi was when Yoselyn told Rosenbaum on December 13, 2013, that “maybe” the devil was inside her during the murders, but she was unsure.“People who experience delusions, they’re firmly committed to that belief,” testified Khadivi. “In fact the definition of delusion is a firm, persistent false belief. She’s quite tentative in answering these questions.” He shared his opinion that such inconsistency was associated with feigning.
In all of the out-of-court interviews with both psychiatrists, Ortega spoke through interpreters. And unlike the Spanish interpreters in the courtroom who patiently wait for someone to say a few sentences before translating, the woman who translated for Ortega in the video spoke over both Khadivi’s questions and Ortega’s answers, ultimately maximizing the disorienting nature of Ortega’s inconsistencies.
Within the language barriers there were other evident barriers. The testimony of Ortega’s 64-year-old, suit-wearing sister Miladys Garcia contained several claims that other people, including the psychologist Ortega visited three days before the murders, had lied about her sister—she disputed Caffrey’s account of “a serious difference” Ortega had with Garcia, who took care of Yoselyn’s son for the majority of his life. Ortega’s 60-year-old sister Delci Ortega, who said almost everything with a friendly smile, no matter how grim the topic of discussion, blamed her faulty memory for inconsistency between her direct and cross exams. On cross, she claimed that when she prayed with Ortega, as she said she did often during the particularly fraught months before Ortega killed the Krim children, Yoselyn Ortega prayed for the entire Krim family. Prosecutor Groves pointed out that on direct, she had said her sister didn’t pray for Marina Krim. “It’s now that I’m remembering because so many years have passed,” explained Delci. And then she claimed, “Whenever she prayed, she prayed for the whole world.”
No witness testimony smelled as fishy as that of Jenny Renoso, the niece of Francisca Corneil, Ortega’s neighbor at her home at 610 Riverside Drive. Before going to work on October 25, 2012, Ortega knocked the door of Corneil’s apartment. Corneil, 80, who had known Ortega since she was a child in the Dominican Republic, wasn’t home, but a then-19-year-old Renoso was. She called her aunt who told her to let Ortega in.
Wearing gold hoop earrings and a ringer-T with Mickey Mouse on it, Renoso sat on the stand with her arms crossed. Van Leer-Greenberg asked her about being unhappy to be there and she huffed, “Not too many people want to be here in a courtroom and testifying.”
Renoso told the court that on October 25, 2012, Ortega told her, “I see a black shadow that follows me, that mentions my name, that follows me.” Renoso did not mention this when Van Leer-Greenberg interviewed her in January 2013, and when Rosenbaum interviewed her in April 2013. It wasn’t until a follow-up meeting with Van Leer-Greenberg that occurred after the defense had indicated to the court that it intended to use the insanity plea that Renoso spoke of hearing about the shadows. Miladys Garcia accompanied Renoso to that last interview. Renoso testified that she told Van Leer-Greenberg about the black shadows because “she allowed me to talk and she told me to explain everything without asking me questions,” but also claimed she never mentioned the shadows to Rosenbaum because she didn’t ask about them.
According to Rosenbaum and Resnick, who wove interviews with Ortega’s family members into their evaluations, Ortega killed the Krim children when she was in the third of three depressive episodes throughout her life that were closely scrutinized during the trial. These occurred during the period following the 1978 death of her younger sister, Rosa Jacqueline; in 2008-9 when she moved back to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. and looked after her son, Jesus; and the seven-month period before the deaths of the Krim children in 2012, with a particular focus on the two months prior, September and October 2012. The prosecution pointed out that two out of three of these instances occurred in the rare instances when her son was under her care: She sent Jesus to live with Miladys in the Dominican Republic when he was four.
According to the defense team, the last period in 2012 was also marked by three discrete dissociative episodes leading up to the murders: an incident in which Ortega woke up in the early morning to throw pots and pans, an incident at the home of her friend Raquel Perez which was confusingly described as a fainting spell in which Ortega did not lose consciousness, and a time when Ortega’s knees buckled.
Multiple people who knew her testified that when Yoselyn Ortega fell into a depression, she stopped eating and listening to music. The overall portrait of Ortega painted by the testimonies of her relatives and friends was similarly broad and generic. “She loves God, she loved the children, she’s a very moral person,” said Dr. Rosenbaum. “She was a very cheerful woman,” explained her older sister Delci Ortega. Ortega’s family friend Raquel Perez, who originally met Ortega at her sister Victoria Ortega’s house in the Dominican Republic, described Ortega as “fine, calm, charming, and energetic.”
“She was nice to everyone,” said Perez.
Ortega was 16 when her 12-year-old sister died of a brain aneurysm, in 1978. It was around then, according to Resnick, that she began hearing voices. Often, these voices would be accompanied by headaches, according to Rosenbaum, though Khadivi’s examination suggested that her headaches started a few years before Ortega began hearing voices, around age 12 or 13.
Rosenbaum said that these voices, command auditory hallucinations instructing Ortega to hurt herself and others when at their most intense, were perceived by Ortega as coming from outside of her head. Rosenbaum testified that Ortega would hear them while awake and sleeping, and she distinguished the latter incidents from dreaming by explaining, “They wake her up and are screaming at her outside of her head.”
According to Khadivi, though, in 2016 Ortega told him that she thought voices were in her head. How exactly Ortega understood the voices is a crucial element of her psychology, particularly that at the time she killed the Krim children. Khadivi found she had an “intact ability to test reality,” that she had attributed the voices to her headache. He explained that psychotic individuals almost 80 percent of the time internalize hallucinations in a delusional way, and that being delusional is a “two-step process”: One has the false sensory perception (voices) and then the false belief that someone was talking, or that the voices were coming from outside of her head. Khadivi maintained throughout his testimony that he found no evidence that Yoselyn Ortega was psychotic but that she was very depressed. The doctor allowed that that given her family’s history of mental illness, including multiple suicides, she was vulnerable to mental illness herself.
Ortega also told doctors she saw shadows—to Khadivi she said these also started after Rosa Jacqueline died in 1978. Family members and friends testified she saw “a black man.” The shadows and “black man” were interchangeably used by the defense to refer to the devil (Delci Ortega explained that the “black man” sometimes meant the devil in the Dominican Republic). “Sometimes she talked about the devil grabbing her, the devil penetrating her, the devil overtaking her, the devil controlling her, the devil transforming her is another word she used,” Rosenbaum testified.
Rosenbaum reported that Ortega’s hallucinations intensified the week leading up to the killing of the Krim children. Three days before she stabbed them to death, Ortega went to see a therapist, Dr. Thomas Caffrey. By all accounts, Ortega did not report hearing voices to him. Rosenbaum said this was because Caffrey didn’t ask. Ortega was also afraid, according to Rosenbaum’s testimony, of appearing crazy, even to a psychologist.
What struck Khadivi about Ortega’s conversation with Caffrey, according to Caffrey’s report and Ortega’s account, was that the topic of conversation was family, not voices or the devil or Ortega’s disorientation, or waking up in the middle of the night to throw pots and pans. In June 2012, Jesus moved from Miladys Garcia’s house in the Dominican Republic to live with his mother in New York. When Jesus attempted to enroll in public school, the school board informed him and his mother that he would have to repeat 11th grade, which prompted Ortega, who made around $500 a week working for the Krims (with an additional $100 per week when she took on some more housekeeping duties), to enroll him in private school.
It seemed that Ortega was scraping by. Five other people lived in the three-bedroom apartment at 610 Riverside Drive at the time of the murders: her son, Jesus, Miladys Garcia’s son Cathy Garcia, Delci Ortega, Delci’s son Randy Ortega, and a woman named Rosa, whose last name Delci said she did not remember despite having lived with her for two years. Additionally, to Caffrey, Ortega fretted about her schedule with the Krims keeping her from spending time with her son.
Khadivi said he believed at the time of the murders, Yoselyn Ortega suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and unspecified depressive disorder. Rosenbaum, meanwhile, claimed that as Ortega killed the Krim children, she no longer had free will and control over her body because she was in a dissociative state. This state, combined with Yosleyn’s reported hearing of voices made for what Rosenbaum compared to “a perfect storm.”
Nothing was more important to the final outcome of this case than Yosleyn Ortega’s intent the day she killed the Krim children. In order for her to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury had to be convinced that Ortega knew not what she did, and this was a case where very little was known for certain. Sussing this out was an enormous task to begin with. To add to that, as the Times printed in March in a piece about insanity pleas and how rarely they’re successful, these “trials become battles between mental health experts hired by both sides, who, using the same set of facts, come to opposite conclusions about the defendant’s capacity to understand his acts at the moment of the crime.”
Here’s New York Penal Law § 40.15:
A person lacks criminal responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect when, at the time of the prohibited conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, that person lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either: 1. The nature and consequences of such conduct; or 2. That such conduct was wrong.
Khadivi said that Ortega displayed “informed intent” all day on October 25, 2012. Before leaving her apartment, Ortega left a purse on the door of Cathy/Jesus’s room that contained what the prosecution referred to as family heirlooms: pictures of Ortega’s mother, who died in 2001, her mother’s passport, her mother’s social security card, a chain of her mother’s, a broken ring and broken earring of her mother’s, Jesus’s baby teeth, pictures of Jesus, and pictures of Delci’s children. She also left an envelope for Delci with a neighbor, which contained items she’d have much more use for on a day-to-day basis than, say, 15-year-old baby teeth: her debit card, her license, two insurance cards, her passport, her social security card, her blood donor card, bank papers from her bank in the D.R., and $100. Ortega’s cell phone was never found after the murders. MetroPCS representative Ron Witt’s testimony showed that after an outgoing call at 12:03 pm from that phone to check voicemail, the phone was off for the rest of the day. That could have meant many things: Her phone’s battery ran out, she intentionally left it behind, or, as Rosenbaum suggested, maybe she was in a state of psychosis and forgot it. “You have no reports of her losing anything else when she’s in a psychotic state, do you?” asked Silberg. “If you don’t count the children, but yes,” countered Rosenbaum with shocking callousness.
Before Delci left for work, Yosleyn asked her to take care of Jesus, telling her how much she loves him. “I took at that as fearful of her state of mind, that the devil was going to take over,” said Dr. Rosenbaum.
“The most important thing is her behavior suggests there was a serious concern that she would die that day,” testified the defense’s Dr. Resnick, explaining that her potential conception may have included suicide or the devil. “But it does not show planning to kill the children—it simply shows that she herself was fearful she would not be able to return that day.”
Though the defense psychiatrists were adamant that Ortega had entered a dissociative state on October 25, 2012, exactly what time it began was unclear even to them. While labeling Ortega as “psychotic all day,” Rosenbaum estimated that the dissociative state happened between picking Lulu up from school and returning to the Krims’ apartment. Prior to that, Ortega talked with Renoso in Corneil’s apartment. Renoso testified that she found Ortega looked odd, that she was pacing, and that her behavior scared Renoso. Miladys Garcia testified she heard Ortega gnashing her teeth when she she talked to her sister, who had called from her neighbor’s apartment. “It was like speaking to a demon,” said Garcia.
Or was it? Garcia and Renoso placed this call after 1 pm—an hour after the MetroPCS phone records showed that Ortega’s phone was off. Renoso specifically testified that Ortega unlocked “her” phone. Did Ortega have another phone? Did Renoso misremember? Was this an indication of embellishment of the signs of Ortega’s uneven mental state leading up to the murders? Elements of this case that may have seemed insignificant on first blush had a way of returning with vengeance—during the first day of deliberation, the jury asked for a read-back of Renoso and Garcia’s testimony regarding this call.
Chloe Beck, the alternate juror that I spoke to during deliberations, said it was the phone records suggesting that the conversation between Ortega and Garcia that Garcia and Renoso testified to never took place. She also said she would have voted to convict Orega.
The devil was in the details, sure, but where else was he that day? Ortega seemingly went about her normal routine after leaving Renoso. Ortega took the train to work, reported to Marina Krim, and picked up Leo. Ortega was to pick up Lulu from school at 3:15 and drop her off at ballet at 3:45. She also stopped to buy the children ice cream between picking Lulu up from school and returning to the apartment—a move the prosecution tried to frame as a stalling tactic to ensure that Marina Krim would not be at the apartment when Ortega returned with the two children. Krim was taking her middle child, Nessie, to swimming, which Ortega was informed of, meaning that she knew Marina would be out of the building. According to the doorman, Ortega specifically asked him if Marina was home when she reentered with the two children before killing them. Ortega said, in a 2016 interview with Khadivi, that they returned because Lulu said she needed to use the bathroom.
Through a number of testimonies, we traced practically each step of Ortega’s on October 25, 2012. We pondered her intentions by the moment juxtaposed by each counsel’s framing—why would she buy the children ice cream if she was going to kill them? Why did she take them to out of the way Central Park if she was still planning on dropping off Lulu at dance? It was a guided tour through mundanity that Ortega’s heinousness rendered meaningful. But it was all preliminary to what happened, and how much the explanation mattered is practically a spiritual question. She was insane, she wasn’t insane, she was a little insane, she was planning on killing the kids, she was planning on killing herself, she wasn’t planning anything, she knew what she was doing, she didn’t know what she was doing. All could be true, but what we know for a fact is that two children are dead and no amount of explaining undoes that. The court’s task was as immense as it was futile.
Here’s what prosecutor Stuart Silberg asked about that day:
Silberg went through Ortega’s behavior in the apartment in detail that was as painful to sit through as it was clearly painstaking to craft. How could Ortega not understand the nature and consequences of, say, taking knives from the butcher block, then holding those knives by the handles, and repeatedly stabbing and slashing the children with them? Didn’t her doing this in the bathroom farthest from the front door, chosen possibly so no one could hear, show understanding? Ortega stabbed Lulu about 20 more times than she did Leo, and since Lulu had defensive wounds suggesting she struggled and fought back, didn’t the extra work Ortega put in to kill the struggling child show an understanding of the nature and consequences of her actions?
Rosenbaum chalked all of this up to the psychotic, dissociative state she believes Ortega was in at the time, that everything Ortega did in the apartment during that time was “part of the act.”
“Even though she’s carrying out actions, which an out observer could look at and they appear to be deliberate, because of her dissociation I think she lacks substantial capacity to organize her mind and carry out a meaningful deliberate intention,” said Resnick, also of the defense team.
Silberg pointed out to Resnick that if Ortega had no understanding that she was causing Lulu’s death, why was it that she wasn’t stabbing the walls or her legs?
“I didn’t say ‘no understanding,’ I said she lacked substantial capacity to understand the nature and consequences of her acts,” replied Resnick. “It’s a common myth that psychotic people are babbling idiots, you know, raging around, stabbing at the wall. That’s not how psychosis works.” He added that stabbing walls is very rare.
The prosecution’s Dr. Khadivi said the presence of hesitation marks on Ortega’s own wrists before her final attempt at suicide by plunging a knife into her own throat when Marina Krim entered the bathroom was proof that Ortega was “forming intent, she was hesitating, she was making decisions,” and that forming intent was inconsistent with dissociations.
“We know hallucination doesn’t work like that” said Khadivi. Meanwhile, Rosenbaum said the hesitation marks could have indicated pain Ortega felt—the pain that makes it more difficult to kill yourself with a knife than someone else. Resnick said such marks are common in suicide as indicative of “rehearsal for testing their capacity to tolerate pain.”
Based on interviews in 2013 and his review of other interviews and evidence, Resnick argued that Ortega was “psychotic,” and undergoing a “a double distortion of reality: delusions causing her to believe things that weren’t true and hallucinations telling her to do things.” Ortega contradicted herself to Khadivi during their 2016 interviews indicating that she did not experience at any point during October 25, 2012, hallucinations, command hallucinations to kill Lulu and Leo, or being the under control of the devil. As a result, Khadavi concluded that Ortega’s depression and anxiety were tied closely to her anger.
Khadivi said that Ortega was feeling a sense of tremendous frustration in the weeks leading up to the murders, that she said she wanted to scream, and that she focused her anger on Marina. He said that she worried that taking care of the Krim children, which tied up her schedule and found her returning home sometimes after midnight, contributed to the suffering of her son.
Plus, there had been tension between Ortega and Marina Krim in the months leading up to the killing of the Krim children. Marina and Kevin Krim testified there had been a disagreement about the logistics surrounding Marina Krim’s sister’s wedding on Labor Day weekend of 2012. Ortega had also agreed to do some side work for Marina Krim’s friend Milanee Kapadia, who was placed on bed rest in the fall of 2012. Ortega met with Kapadia once and worked for her for about two hours after their initial interview, and then returned the next day with a friend, saying she could no longer take on the part-time work, but her friend could. Kapadia declined the revised offer.
The next day, at school drop off, Marina Krim told Ortega, “I don’t want to see your face right now”—this was apparently in the earshot of enough other people to humiliate Ortega. In Khadvi’s report, parts of which were read in court, she reflected on the emotional impact this incident had on her.
“‘I felt insulted,’” he said Ortega told him, even four years later. He went on: “Afterward she was so upset she was crying. After the argument she left, sat in a bench in the park and this is what she told me: ‘What did I do wrong? I did everything for her, how is that I’m taking care of her kids, and you’re ignoring me after I’ve been with you for two years doing everything. Even washing your underwear.’”
As appealing as viewing the killing through the prosecution’s lens of logic was, it still didn’t entirely make sense to me: How could someone knowingly murder two kids she, by several accounts, loved and had no problems with? What right mind could ever think of the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old as a proportional response to any dispute? Was Ortega’s lack of an apparent motive revealing of her psychosis, as the defense argued, or cold-bloodedness, as the prosecution implied?
I wonder if there is a part of the story we’re just not hearing, could never hear because Lulu and Leo are dead and Ortega isn’t talking. Something that pushed her over the edge. Something that provoked an oversized and heinous response. I’ve thought about this case for hundreds of hours now, the sad and disgusting moment in which Lulu and Leo Krim were robbed of their lives, in particular, and I pine for something to fill in the blank. In retrospect, paying such close attention to The People of the State of New York v. Yoselyn Ortega feels like a months-long search under the dining table for a dropped puzzle piece—something that could snap into place and give me a full picture. I can’t seem to find it, and I keep bumping my head.
“If you’re looking to this trial for answers you may not get them and that’s partly because the people who don’t have to prove it, but more importantly why you won’t get them is there is no why,” explained Silberg in his closing argument. “These are vicious and heinous acts against defenseless children.”
I thought so much about what this case is about at its most basic level in the weeks I spent commuting back and forth between the courthouse, my office, and my apartment. At issue was a completely unknowable mind and the indisputable action that arose from that mind and its state. To call this a case of a woman angry at her employer, or a case about class, or a case about motherhood, or even a case about mental illness is to reject that there’s something so extreme about the situation that it barely applies to our normal lives, except in the broadest of strokes. In the pursuit of happiness, we tune out the permanent imminence of tragedy this case underlines, and who could blame us?
I came away buying most of the prosecution’s argument, though it struck me as overly simple—the defense’s presentation, however inadvertently, provided the messiness with a good thematic framing. I believe Yoselyn Ortega knew what she was doing. But I also believe it was an insane thing to do. Ortega told Resnick that despite killing the children, she believes she is going to heaven. A lot of us believe in things that don’t quite make sense.
Something that periodically cut through the fog of confusion that I became so accustomed to in that courtroom everyday that it started to feel almost narcotic was the fact that Ortega never cried about Lulu and Leo Krim in the courtroom.
She didn’t shed a tear that anyone noticed during testimonies of the Krims, which recounted the senseless deaths of their children—children Yoselyn Ortega was so close to that their lives were literally in her hands. Ortega was, in fact, so bonded to Leo that the 2-year-old had a hard time falling asleep in Ortega’s absence, according to testimony from her own son, Jesus Frias.
That a recounting of her own emotional state, and not that of the Krims or a reminder of the children she murdered, brought tears to her eyes would seem to fall in line with the portrait of the remorseless cold-blooded killer that the prosecution attempted to sketch and what Marina Krim seemed to think of her. Who knows what she believes happened on that day herself, but if she buys the dissociation story her team argued, if she thinks the devil was controlling her to the extent that she is now innocent in the eyes of God, how could she remain stoic when being reminded of the children she supposedly loved as though they were her own?
The day Ortega’s video interview with Khadivi played in court, we heard her discuss what she was going through in the hours that led to the killings. “Without my strength, I was going to fall, I said, Lord. I should have fallen because why me?” she said coolly in the interview. She wept in the courtroom in response.
A few days earlier, as Rosenbaum went over one of her conversations with Ortega about the day of the murders, Ortega had her arms on the table in front of her, perpendicular to it in 90 degree angles, her hands clasped. During that portion of the questioning, every time Silberg mentioned her killing the children, she leaned forward and shook her head into her wrists, another site where she once cut to hurt, but hesitated.