Fort Worth

Insanity defense planned for pianist’s wife accused of smothering her children

Pianist Vadym Kholodenko poses with his wife, Sofya Tsygankova, and daughters Nika, 4, and Michaela, 2 months, in September 2014.
Pianist Vadym Kholodenko poses with his wife, Sofya Tsygankova, and daughters Nika, 4, and Michaela, 2 months, in September 2014. Star-Telegram archives

Defense attorneys will argue that Sofya Tsygankova, the estranged wife of former Cliburn winner Vadym Kholodenko, was insane when she killed the couple’s two young daughters last year, court documents indicate.

Joetta Keene, Tsygankova’s defense attorney, filed notice Friday of the intent to raise the insanity defense in Tsygankova’s two pending capital murder cases. Keene is being assisted by attorney Rose Anna Salina.

Tsygankova, 33, is accused of smothering her two daughters, Michaela Kholodenko, 1, and Nika Kholodenko, 5, inside their Benbrook home on March 17, 2016.

Kholodenko, the 2013 gold medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, discovered the girls dead in their beds after arriving at the home in the 6600 block of Waterwood Trail to take the children to school.

Tsygankova, who was covered in blood with cuts to her wrists, later told investigators that she remembered cutting herself and taking pills because she “didn’t want to live” but did not recall harming her children, according to an affidavit.

Kholodenko was in the midst of divorcing his wife when the slayings occurred.

“This is a very sad case,” Keene told the Star-Telegram on Friday. “The children were Sofya’s world. Nothing that happens in the criminal justice system will bring them back or solve the heartbreak of their loss.”

But Keene said Tsygankova suffered from a “severe mental illness.”

“Her condition was such that she was declared incompetent — that is, unable to understand what happens in a trial or even the functions of lawyers and judges,” Keene said. “If she is found not guilty by reason of insanity, she would be incarcerated in a mental health facility and not a prison. She would be under the judge’s supervision for the rest of her life.”

Keene said the defense filed Friday’s notice “in hopes that that would be the outcome of this travesty.”

A police affidavit has indicated Tsygankova had a history with Mental Health and Mental Retardation services. She had visited one of its facilities the day before her daughters were found dead and had evidently just filled a prescription for an anti-psychotic drug used to treat such illnesses as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The Tarrant County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the filing Friday.

Here are some key questions regarding Tsygankova’s case.

What’s the difference between competency and sanity?

Competency determines whether a defendant understands the legal proceedings and is competent to appear at trial. Sanity determines whether a defendant will be held responsible for criminal actions.

Under a sanity defense, defense attorneys must show that at the time Tsygankova committed the crime, she did not know it was wrong because of a severe mental disease or defect.

Has Tsygankova been deemed competent to stand trial?

Tsygankova had been ordered in late October to a state mental heath facility after being deemed incompetent to stand trial.

While waiting for a bed to become available at the facility, she was transferred from jail to John Peter Smith Hospital after her mental condition led to a deterioration in her physical health, sources confirmed.

She was eventually transferred to the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon. After an extended stay, she was returned to the Tarrant County Jail last month after being deemed competent to stand trial.

At times, defendants can be restored to competency only to later be deemed incompetent again.

What happens now?

Prosecutors will obtain their own experts to examine Tsygankova. If, as a result of those evaluations, the state agrees that Tsygankova is not guilty by reason of insanity, a hearing will be held before State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez and she will be ordered to a state mental hospital.

If the state disagrees, the cases will proceed to a jury trial.

To be found not guilty by reason of insanity, jurors would have to believe that Tsygankova committed the crimes of which she is accused and then find that the defense proved — by a preponderance of the evidence — that Tsygankova was insane at the time of the offense.

If found not guilty by reason of insanity, how long will Tsygankova have to stay at a state mental hospital?

That’s up to the judge.

The 432nd District Court — over which Gonzalez presides — would supervise Tsygankova for the rest of her life.

She could remain hospitalized until her death.

If doctors later deem her not a danger to herself or others, the judge could also order her release but put restrictions in place, such as requiring she wear a GPS monitor and that she take certain medications.

Even if released, Tsygankova could later be ordered re-hospitalized.

She would remain under the court’s jurisdiction, even if allowed to return to her birthplace of Russia, unless the court chose to end all supervision.

What if jurors don’t find Tsygankova not guilty by reason of insanity but rather guilty of capital murder?

Because prosecutors have waived the death penalty in the case, Tsygankova would be automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd