The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

She left behind a baby boy, an estranged lover, and a custody case that would challenge progressive New York

The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

Lincoln Edward Amory Leutner-Sporn crawls across the multicolored carpet, ignoring a pile of blocks and a stuffed animal and heading straight for a thick psychiatry text. Chubby, with a round face and sandy blond hair that's parted and neatly combed to the side, he paws through the pages of the book, clumsily opening and closing it with dimpled hands.

His father, Dr. Jonathan Sporn, a director of clinical research for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, chuckles as the baby abandons academic pretense and shoves the book in his mouth. At 55, Sporn has white hair. He has kind eyes and a crooked smile. "If he eats it, that's a good sign," he jokes. "That's the biggest tribute Lincoln gives." Sporn fancies the baby's antics an early sign of intelligence. The kid is bound to be brilliant, he tells anyone who will listen—just like his mother.

Sporn, however, may not have the opportunity to see how Lincoln turns out.

LeAnn Leutner
LeAnn Leutner
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, 
and baby Lincoln
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, and baby Lincoln

The doctor and his girlfriend, LeAnn Leutner, a high-powered corporate lawyer and Democratic Party leader, celebrated the long-awaited birth of baby Lincoln in July 2012. Six months later, Leutner committed suicide. Because the couple was not married and the baby was conceived with the help of a sperm donor, the state declared Lincoln an orphan and placed him in foster care. After a bitter custody battle that stretched to June, a judge sent Lincoln to Illinois to live with Leutner's sister. Sporn didn't even get to say goodbye.

The case illustrates a gap between the law and the increasingly dynamic definition of family. Today, the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. As technology improves, and prices for assisted reproductive technology come down, more and more children are welcomed into complex parental situations.

Beyond the custody battle, though, the crumbling of Sporn's family is a cautionary tale. In a way, Leutner's determination to have a baby—no matter the cost—sent her down a path that would ultimately lead to her death. Infertility treatment is a grueling emotional ordeal for any woman. For a woman like Leutner, who had a history of mental illness, it was a dangerous proposition.

"Looking back, there are so many things I wish I would have done differently to prevent this," Sporn says. "Every day I'm in pain about LeAnn. I wake up with it, and I go to sleep with it."

Leutner was a wisp of a woman, with ivory skin, ebony hair, and apple cheeks that dimpled when she smiled. Her voice was small, to match her frame, and high like a child's. She was 40 years old when she died, but she still had a girlish air—"like a princess," friends say. When others dressed in baseball caps and T-shirts, Leutner wore red lipstick and pearls. She loved glittery shoes, dangling earrings, and dresses covered in sequins and lace. Friends remember her first for her smile, which came fast and easy, and her tinkling laugh. It "lit up the room," wrote high school classmate Stacey Hoelscher, a kindergarten teacher in Illinois, in a memorial newsletter. "She was always kind."

But behind her warm exterior, Leutner was frail as a bird. She struggled with mood problems, an eating disorder, dissociative states, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, according to a custody petition Sporn filed in Manhattan Supreme Court. On her teeth, friends noticed staining and erosion—telltale signs of bulimic purging. People wondered when she refused to eat at parties: Does her collarbone protrude too much? Is her skin a bit too pale? To close friends, Leutner confided, "I never expected to live past 25." She treated her struggles with a daily 80mg dose of Prozac.

Since her youth in southern Illinois, those around her described Leutner as "self-assured" and "confident in her path." She breezed through a finance degree at the University of Illinois with highest honors, and, at 19, was accepted into Yale Law School. Among the youngest in the class of 1995, Leutner was less traveled and worldly than her peers, says classmate Jesselyn Radack.

But Leutner was also among the brightest. Her memory was near photographic. She knew politics inside out. "She could win a game of Trivial Pursuit with one roll of the dice," one friend jokes. Though law school could be a pressure-cooker, where ambition is cunning and looking down one's nose comes easy, Leutner's acumen wasn't something she flaunted. "Hers was a quiet brand of brilliance," Radack says.

In between homework and editing Yale Law & Policy Review, Leutner attended meetings for the school's feminist club and volunteered at a legal clinic, helping battered women get temporary restraining orders against their abusers. When Radack and her group of friends poked fun at a stuck-up classmate, Leutner didn't join in. "She had a youthful innocence and trust in people," Radack says. "She was always looking for the good side in everybody."

She was harder on herself. At Yale Law, instead of letter grades, teachers gave students a fail, pass, or honors. In one class, Radack remembers, there was only a pass/fail option. Leutner worried: Would potential employers understand why she hadn't gotten honors?

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21 comments
pete1589
pete1589

Et Satan conduit le bal.  Pray the Rosary for Hellzapoppin!  The family that prays together stays together.  And America has forgotten this wisdom.

justsayin
justsayin

INJUSTICE!!!  Poor Mr Sporn has been through too much.  I hope someone official grows a brain and gives him custody of his child immediately.  Ridiculous situation.

chilambalam
chilambalam

It is remarkable that the issue of legal rights for unmarried couples, which are pretty much non-existent in this inherently morally conservative society, is only given attention by the press and raised to international status when the couple is white and rich. I think of how many low and middle-income people this issue affects but which we don't read about in the Village Voice, which further raises the issue of class and race. I suppose it's not glamorous to read about such ordinary couples struggling to survive in an increasingly gentrified inner city and who don't have the opportunity to make love to the sound of roaring lions during an African safari or vacation in Italy.

MissBobWiley
MissBobWiley

Why didn't Leutner put Sporn down on the birth certificate as the father? She had every right to do that, and if she had, the child would never have wound up with social services. I just don't understand that aspect. She was a lawyer, she surely knew Sporn would not have custodial rights in the event of her death. Why did her sister refuse to even tell Sporn that Leutner had died, and then fight him for custody? Something just seems off.

lemonaide
lemonaide

she was in the midst of a serious mental health crisis, was dealing with possible postpartum depression, had attempted suicide at least twice - and Sporn left her in the hospital and the baby with a nanny, while he left the country. i know it's hard dealing with someone with mental health issues, but as a mental health professional none of this should have been surprising to him, and Leutner and the baby were his responsibility - if he was the intended father figure for the child.

melvinhermille
melvinhermille

There's a Wall Street law firm called Fried Frank?

richardwad2u1
richardwad2u1

It seems Sporn did very little to intervene in Leutner's downward spiral. The fact that she moved her and the baby to another residence right before her death speaks volumes. I think the correct decision was made. 

msp2dlh
msp2dlh

What an adorable baby.  Just heartbreaking all around.

liketanyanot
liketanyanot

@MissBobWiley I wholeheartedly agree. But then this level of selfishness and arrogance and cluelessness and shortsightedness is typical of the average New York overachiever. The Village Voice has an agenda in propogating the fact that 41% of women now having children out of wedlock is actually a good thing. No, no it's not. It messes kids minds up and creates ridiculous, completely avoidable situations like this. But then again, the Village Voice's agenda has always been to mock anyone who isn't a little red book toting, unthinking, pompous, arrogant atheist who knows everything but who is actually a fairly superficial annoying stereotype of a type of liberal who hasn't been around since the 1940s in the West Village. I think there may be some credence here to some people saying behind Leutner's back saying she treated her kid like a toy. I also am kind of suspicious about the bipolar levels of volunteerism, Type-A aggressiveness and a need to fill every waking minute with doing something without what seems like a moment's peace or reflection by Leutner to be exceptionally troubling. I also think that a neuroscientist and psychiatrist like Sporn should have seen this coming by wanting to get a woman like this pregnant. Something also seems off the way their courtship went down. There was a reason she didn't have custody of her first child, Sporn should have seen this as well as a big red flag. But love is blind, I guess...

NJM3
NJM3

new york law is so messed up that even if on birth certificate it would not necessarily secure his parental rights if not yet married and adoption not complete. the baby has Sporn's name - does the mother's intent prior to illness not matter crtically? They were clearly a couple- this is very troubling.

Leutner was not acting reasonably so hard to know and one would imagine sister not involve prior  suddently wanted the baby as it was all that remained of her sister- maybe she feels guilty? There is something off about what the friend was doing getting her out of hospital and then leaving her alone while keeping baby with her on New Years eve. The boy will some day know his father at least fought hard for him before he was exiled. There are rumors the friend was going lawyer shopping to try to then get custody of baby herself- even though she was a complete stranger.

23RSD
23RSD

@lemonaide 

Note you indicate what is "possible" but were not there. If someone is living with mental illness it will eventually leave the person exhausted and needing a break in order to continue the battle. Psychiatrists will sometimes refuse to continue to see patients who will not work with them in a therapeutic alliance or will be overwhelmed by the stress of managing a self destructive patient who they only see once a week or so- so imagine having that stress 24/7. 

But the larger issue is even if you assume that Sporn should not have used her hospitalization as a chance to go away and recover, is that enough to ignore the intent of the parties to have a child together? It sounds like punishment more than what is right and best for the boy.

Clearly the couple went to an IVF clinic and would have had to sign paperwork that would clearly indicate that despite using a sperm donor that the intended father accepts the child as his own and his heir. If the earlier IVF cycles described in the article had succeeded then Sporn would have been the biological father and he would have not had a problem keeping his son despite the moralizing of judges or the public about a situation they were not present for. In this case an IVF clinic would "bridge" this issue by having the parents sign contractual language that they are the parents regardless of the biological "work around" of a sperm donor (who in this case Sporn chose per article). How different would it be if the mother had used an egg donor? Would you then still think it is the courts role to then decide who should get the baby because obligatory need for assistance in  reproduction. In other states with less archaic laws then NY Sporn would have been the parent without question. The courts if they are involved should be guided by the intent of the parents at the time the baby was conceived. 

Otherwise it is left to the the whim of a judge and the judge in question has a reputation for having disturbing  anger control problems. In this case the intent of the parents was clear:  to have a child biologically related to both of them and they worked together to this end-- if this is well documented then the "State" should not be intruding on their lives. A judge making a decision that is not based on intent of the parties is then a decision  based on nothing but what they feel like doing using only the vague principle of best interest of the child.  This may be in violation of the due process clause of the constitution which protects against vague laws. If this had been about Sporn using embryos after the mother's death then the contract they signed would be binding but in this case because there is a baby the intent of the parents is not thought by this judge to be binding or even guiding for the judge- this is odd from a common sense level putting aside the law.

In this case the child has lost now both his mother and the only father he ever knew and at 1 years old that is relevant already in terms of his attachment. He then is sent to strangers only for the reason that the baby shares 25% heredity with him? The boy would have grown up with a father who is well educated, has resources to bring him up, and where the mother of the child clearly intended him to live. It also takes the child away from the father who is clearly very attached to him and has been fighting for him-- what is the advantage of doing so. We do not know from the article whether the sister who does not appear in the story till after Leutner dies has the intellectual, emotional, and financial resources to do the best by the child. 

I hope Sporn appeals this unusual case. The problem of mental illness and the intent to have the child biologically related to both parties should be of interest to the appeals court I would hope. More importantly, NY law should be fixed so this does not happen but given how messed up beyond all repair the NY legislature is this may not happen but lets hope

skram08
skram08

@richardwad2u1 Actually, if you read the article you will see that Leutner was supposed to be hospitalised at the time, which is exactly where someone who makes multiple attempts on their life should be. 

What's unfortunate is that Leutner and her enabler friend, Myra DiDonato, managed to convince the hospital that Leutner was well enough to be discharged when she clearly was not. Unless you mange to have someone declared mentally incompetent, it's very hard to force anyone to do anything they don't want to, so Sporn wasn't exactly in a position to force Leutner to do anything with regards to treatment for her declining mental state. 

And, speaking as a long time sufferer of mental illness, we can be remarkably stubborn when we decide we want to self destruct.

Saying Leutner's behaviour shortly before her suicide "speaks volumes" is flawed, because her actions were those of someone in the grips of severe mental illness. You do see the problem with giving her actions a particular significance, right? For all we know she wanted to leave because Sporn was trying to push her into treatment... there's plenty of scenarios that can be hypothesised here and I think that's really important to keep in mind.

23RSD
23RSD

what is most relevant and made clear is the consequences of mental illness on decision making. Someone with mental illness can decide to move or be homeless or to isolate from their friends and family- this only speaks volumes regarding the illness rather than being a moral judgment on others involved. In any event people with mental illness have to accept intervention and sadly often do not.  Sad that you are so judgmental. Losing a child on top of managing mental illness and losing ones partner seems a bit much

23RSD
23RSD

that is an odd comment since you have no idea what interventions were made.

catscram
catscram

@skram08 This is a sad example of what happens when mental illness meets up with parenthood.  Even if a child is not biologically related to either parent he will grow up with at least one who is mentally ill.  Whatever good qualities and intentions Leutner may have had, she wasn't clear enough in her mind to make the right decision.

The only place my genes are going is into my grave.

richardwad2u1
richardwad2u1

@23RSD, um, genius, the fact that he wanted to co-parent with someone he knew was mentally ill for quite some time - and put her through all that this entailed - brings his judgement into question quite a bit...perhaps not for you but for most functional, thinking individuals. 

pete1589
pete1589

@10Merc @richardwad2u1 @23RSD And when satanic possession slowly starts, it is not recognized until after death.  Pray the Rosary. Or remain defenseless.  Your choice.

10Merc
10Merc

@richardwad2u1 @23RSD she was not ill when they started p process- she was working as an attorney at Simpson Thacher, working in politics, parenting another child, and was able to enjoy lots of adventure. When illness slowly starts it is not at first recognized

 
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