Cliburn winner’s ex-wife will stand trial for murder

A judge in Fort Worth has found the pianist Sonya Tsygankova fit to stand trial for the death of her two daughters.

Tsygankova, 33, was sent for treatment at a mental health facility after the tragedy 15 months ago.

She pleaded not guilty to capital murder.

The girls’ father, Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, found them dead in the family home in Benbrook, Texas, in March 2016.



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  • IMHO Post-partum psychosis can be the most severe mental illness-as far as the complete absence of reality testing, and the risk of actionable imperative hallucinations.
    Quite awful..

  • That poster looks like it’s from one of those dime-a-dozen Italian “Concorsi Pianistici Internazionali”, which are more numerous than grains of risotto in a Po valley warehouse.

    • What exactly is your point? I don’t think that the level of prestige of the concerts in which this woman performed is really what is under discussion here. I imagine that the poster was simply used to be illustrative and because it is presumably free of copyright, or, if there is copyright, nobody is realistically going to claim it. There are better photos on the internet, but I guess a blog like this doesn’t have the budget to go to photo agencies and so on to source the best pictures.

    • You think she committed two murders because her husband left her? All the evidence seems to be that she was psychotic at the time.

  • A very tragic case, and one can only imagine that, even if she is now considered to be fit to stand trial, she was probably lacking mental capacity at the time of the killings. Prosecutors have reportedly stated that they will not seek the death penalty, but one must hope that the criminal justice system in Texas deals humanely with somebody who seemingly was mentally ill at the time and not a cold-blooded murderer. There was a case that sounds rather similar to this in the UK a few years ago in which the mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital until she had recovered, and after a fairly short period of time she was back out in society and living again with her husband (the children’s father).

    The US criminal justice system does not, generally, seem to be as humane as other western jurisdictions. For example, I wonder whether Gypsy Rose Blanchard would have been sentenced to prison in any other western jurisdiction. The attempted murder of Zabhullah Boota is an interesting comparison. A 14-year-old girl whom he had sexually abused attempted to murder him. The Crown accepted a guilty plea to a charge of GBH with intent, and she walked free with a rehabilitation order, supervision, and a fine. The judge, His Honour Judge Durham Hall QC, said that he was imposing the fine only because it was mandatory and that she shouldn’t have to pay it and would pay it out of his own pocket if anybody tried to force her to! He was found guilty of misconduct by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office for some of his remarks in sentencing, but was widely praised by the public. Indeed, the JCIO handed him “formal advice”, suggesting that his “sentence” was essentially mandatory and that the JCIO probably basically thought he had done the right thing.

  • Equally guilty are the doctors who examined Ms. Tsygankova when she voluntarily checked herself into a hospital the day before she killed her children. Those idiots sent her home, after supplying her with medications that threw her over the edge…

  • I did not know the details of a hospital discharge. As I wrote above it is (or should be) well knuwn in psychiatry how delusional patients suffering severe post-partum psychosis can be, and how they tend to act on their unreal ideas. Unless there is some extenuating circumstance, discharge of such a patient is malpractice at best.

  • I don’t buy any of this compassionista stuff. My son is currently going through the family court with the most vengeful, stupid, greedy, reckless and neglectful mother of his two children. Both are regularly in danger of their mother no matter how many times my son has protested. The courts are stacked against men and there’s no due process; the women only have to make one (usually false) accusation against the father and it’s all over. No evidence required to support their accusations (at least in the country where we live) thanks largely to an army of domestic violence activists. It’s outrageous and all the alarm my son has sounded about the mental capacity of his estranged spouse comes to absolutely nothing. There’s a dollar in it for the legal profession to keep my son feeding their meter – endlessly. How many days of his working life has he spent sitting in courts and how much money he’s continuing to pay in legal fees – while she is getting legal aid and/or representation from a relative gratis! If it goes pear-shaped for her (unlikely) she’ll simply says she’s mentally unwell and cannot be expected to take responsibility; rather conveniently, despite accepting no responsibility when accused of being a neglectful mother!! The courts are there to listen sympathetically to any women; the men just have to pay and then bugger off and like it.

    And are you going to be there, Alexander Davidson, if this woman once again has to care for children whose lives could be in danger at any moment? I guess it doesn’t really matter, though, since it’s her rights which are supreme.

    • Believe it or not, I do have every sympathy with the situation in which your son now finds himself, as I do believe that there is considerable evidence that men are disadvantaged in child custody and access proceedings. There have also been tragic cases of men who have been prevented from having access to their children following an allegation that has later been proven to be wholly unfounded, by which time considerable damage has been done to the man’s relationship with his children. On the other hand, it seems unfair to blame this situation on “an army of domestic violence activists”. Domestic violence is a serious issue which does disproportionately affect women, so it is important that it is at last receiving the attention that it deserves.

      I am not sure, however, what any of this has to do with the State of Texas’s criminal proceedings against Sonya Tsygankova. Have you read anything about the case? When Ms Tsygankova was found with her children’s bodies she had cut her wrists and stabbed herself in the chest. We can only presume that she intended to take her own life: I cannot imagine why else somebody would attempt that combination of injuries. She was said to have been extremely distressed and rocking back and forth. She was apparently so unaware of what had taken place that she initially believed that the children must have been in the care of her husband. Only later did she ask police, “Did I do anything bad to my kids?” Seemingly she was unaware that she had in fact killed them. At the time of the killings she was taking three kinds of medication: an antipsychotic, an antidepressant, and an antihistamine used to treat anxiety. We also know that she had sought psychiatric care the day before the children were killed. This, clearly, was a woman suffering from a combination of debilitating mental illnesses.

      You raise the question of risk. The fact is that this woman’s children are now dead, so this question would arise only if she were to become pregnant again. Personally, I should be very surprised if she were to wish to have more children, given this experience, which must be absolutely tragic for her. If she were to have more children it would of course have to be assessed whether it was likely that she would suffer a further episode of mental illness that could lead to something like this happening again. Of course, since she was seemingly not affected mentally in the same way by the birth of the first child it is possible that she could have another child without becoming ill again. However, it would be a very real risk and I am sure that she would be assessed very closely and that authorities would err on the side of caution in considering whether a child needed to be taken into state care temporarily or permanently. Here in the UK it is the law that the welfare of the child is paramount (i.e. that it is the child’s rights, not the parent’s rights, that are supreme), and I assume that it is much the same in the USA.

      But this does not address the question of her criminal liability. In any civilised law system (which I imagine includes, at least in theory, the USA) a person cannot be punished for a crime which he committed while mentally disordered. If it is the case that she was suffering from post-partum psychosis at the time of the killings (and we must admit that all available information suggests that this was the case), she cannot justly be held to be liable to serve the penalty prescribed by law. She will now spend the rest of her life with the knowledge that, while mentally disordered, she killed her two children. That, surely, is suffering enough for a lifetime. This does not seem like a civilised way of dealing with somebody clearly severely mentally unwell. Once it can be proven that she poses no risk to the public (and I doubt that she does) I see no reason why she shouldn’t be released into the community to try to rebuild what remains of her life.

      • She/he is actually very compassionate toward her/his son and his children, but “Trump supporters” are not surprised anymore when they are being once again negatively stereotyped by their opponents.
        Yes, in USA “welfare of the child is paramount” as well, but the problem is that most courts believe that children are always better off with the mother and/or her family than with the father and/or his family.

      • True, but I have not seen that diminutive used anywhere other than on this blog. Unless Norman Lebrecht knows her personally and knows that this is the preferred form of her name, I’d suggest that it’s just a typo.

        • She went by Sonya (and yes, she was a friend). I am glad to finally see comments on this thread that are more humane and understanding than the general public. Whatever people choose to believe, I saw firsthand over several years what a caring and attentive mother she was. She struggled with mental illness, trying to hide it (because her family considered it a stigma), and to me the one of the saddest things is that when she decided to reach out for help by going to the clinic, she was unfortunately treated by an ignorant, reckless, and completely insensitive doctor who prescribed a dangerous medication without supervision. He knew how distressed she was and yet chose not to protect Sonya or the children. At the very least he should lose his license to practice medicine; he did the opposite of “do no harm”. I truly believe that this tragedy was preventable.

  • An insanity defense is rarely successful in Texas and when it is, the person can still be committed for as long as the prison sentence would have been for the crime if convicted.

    Either way, she will be incarcerated for the rest of her life.

  • It might not be clear to some of the people who posted thus far that there is a difference between insanity and being not competent (“fit”) to stand trial. Insanity is related to the mental state of the defendant at the time of the offense–not every state allows an insanity defense, and the legal criteria for insanity vary from state to state. Competency to stand trial has to do with the mental state of the defendant NOW–do they have a severe “mental disease or defect” (variously worded and defined in each state) that prevents them from assisting in their defense? If the trial judge decides that the defendant is not presently competent to stand trial, the judge can order “restoration”–treatment that might make the defendant able to stand trial. Again, the procedures and rules for competency vary from state to state. It is not just to put someone on trial who has a severe mental illness and can’t work with their attorney, or is so intellectually disabled that they really don’t understand what is happening. The Supreme Court has made it clear that defendants not competent to stand trial shall not be tried unless they can be “restored.” This is the law of the land, and it has nothing to do with liberal vs. conservative.

    I’m a forensic psychologist who has done thousands of competency and sanity assessments.

    • I think the point that I, and others, have been making above is that in this case both criteria would seem to apply. Of course, we do not yet know what defence she will be arguing in her trial, but I cannot imagine that she will not argue that her responsibility was diminished at the time when the murders were committed. Reporting on this case has not been particularly extensive so far, but it is not much of a stretch to say that the available information strongly points to postpartum psychosis. She had recently given birth, she was receiving treatment for psychosis, depression, and anxiety, she almost certainly attempted suicide, and, crucially, she was not aware of the fact that she had killed her children. It would be quite extraordinary if she were not to claim a defence of insanity. That is in addition to the fact that she was temporarily unfit to stand trial. Of course, it may turn out, as some less sympathetic observers have suggested, that she is in fact a perfectly sane cold-blooded murderer who killed her own children to spite her husband, but that seems highly unlikely, and she would have to be very clever and a very good actress to have convinced medical experts that she was suffering from psychosis in the period leading up to the murders.

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