March 31, 2008 12:00 PM

He wants to talk about the Halloween costumes he bought for the twins: a pink Princess Belle gown for Tessara, then 3, and a yellow taffeta Princess Aurora dress for Samantha. He wants to tell you how they held hands and danced in their pretty outfits. “They loved anything Disney,” he manages to say. But David Crespi, a former bank executive, cannot find the words to explain just how much he adored his girls, because he cannot stop himself from crying.

Two years after that day, on Jan. 20, 2006, Crespi killed Sam and Tess as they played hide-and-seek, stabbing each of them multiple times.

Now serving two life sentences with no hope of parole, Crespi, 47, knows people think he is a monster. In his darkest hours he believes it of himself. But there is a powerful source of solace in his life, and it comes from an unlikely place: his wife and the mother of his twins, Kim Crespi. Kim, 47, a former CPA and the mother of their three other children, says the man she married did not kill Sam and Tess; instead, it was a man who had a serious mental illness—bipolar disorder—that was not diagnosed until it was far too late. For that reason she has done something that many cannot fathom: She has forgiven David. “He would never have hurt his family if he had been in his right mind,” says Kim, who still lives with the children in the five-bedroom home in suburban Charlotte, N.C., where the twins died. “He’s a good man and he just didn’t get the appropriate help.”

Even David is sometimes amazed by her show of mercy. “I thought she wouldn’t love me anymore because I killed Sam and Tess,” he says from the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, N.C. “But there was never any anger, only love.”

The battle against his mental illness was one they fought together for 12 years. They met as students at California State University, and, after David’s first wife died of cancer, married in 1994. Kim adopted Jessica and Dylan, David’s son and daughter from his first marriage, and in 1996 they had their first child together, Joshua David. In 2000 came the twins.

David, says his daughter Jessica, 19, was a great dad who never laid a hand on his kids. “He memorized all the Spice Girls songs, and he’d run into my room in the morning singing them,” she says. But he was also struggling with what doctors said was severe depression. “He’d be fine for long stretches, and then something would trigger it,” says Kim. Outwardly “he was able to adapt well,” says his friend Ed Jones. But in private it was hellish: dark, obsessive thoughts and, eventually, delusions and paranoia. “I couldn’t turn my mind off,” says David. “I had suicidal thoughts and fears of losing my job.” He also had homicidal thoughts, “but I didn’t believe it would ever happen.”

In 2004 David went for counseling with a social worker, who consulted a psychiatrist; they decided to put him on the antidepressant Paxil. By early 2006 he had stopped taking it, and his general practitioner put him on Trazadone—which treats anxiety and depression—plus the sleep aid Ambien. Seven days before the tragedy, the original psychiatrist added generic Prozac to his medications. On Jan. 19, 2006, he and Kim went to see his counselor again. “He is scaring me,” she told the social worker. “He gets up in the middle of the night and walks back and forth.” But his therapists apparently didn’t hear about David’s homicidal thoughts; as he later told police, he never shared them with anyone. The social worker gave David a different sleep aid and sent him home. Dr. Katayoun Tabrizi, a psychiatrist who interviewed David in prison and later testified at his evidentiary hearing, feels any therapist treating a chronically and severely depressed patient like David “should have considered hospitalization.” PEOPLE contacted David’s social worker, who said client confidentiality prevents her from commenting; his psychiatrist said “no comment.”

On Jan. 20 David, on medical leave from work, stayed home with the twins, who were sick with colds, while Kim left for the hairdresser at 12:05 p.m. When she returned at 1:20 p.m., police squad cars were everywhere. An officer told her what happened: David found Sam in the kitchen and stabbed her repeatedly with a butcher knife; he found Tess in a bedroom and killed her there. “I was shocked, horrified,” says Kim, who had to quickly gather herself to tell her children about their sisters. “There was just this deep, deep sadness.”

In prison a psychiatrist diagnosed David as having bipolar disorder, an illness that can, in severe cases, lead to violent psychosis. But his lawyers couldn’t plead insanity at David’s hearing because he had admitted that he knew what he did was wrong. “We don’t have a guilty-but-mentally-ill plea in North Carolina,” says Jim Cooney, David’s defense attorney. “You’re either insane or fully responsible.” Since David began taking lithium, a mood stabilizer, “he has been in remission,” says his prison psychologist Andrea Sinclair. “If David had been diagnosed properly, this never would have happened.”

Today, David “is like his old self,” says Kim, who drives an hour and a half each way every Saturday to see her husband in prison. Yet despite his wife’s love and support, there are days when he has a hard time forgiving himself. “I caused so much pain,” says David, who keeps a photo of Sam and Tess in his cell. “I can feel forgiven, but then every morning I look at the girls and …” He trails off.

David’s only hope of shortening his sentence is an unlikely pardon from the governor. Meanwhile, Kim tries to keep things as normal as possible for the rest of her children. Dylan, 15, and Josh, 11, do not like to talk publicly about the tragedy and have struggled with anxiety. Kim, too, has rough moments and sees a therapist once a week. “I still cry every day,” she says. “I still see the twins everywhere in the house. Dancing in the foyer, painting in the kitchen, having tea parties.”

Kim is also aware that some of her friends and neighbors question her decision. “At first I wondered how she could forgive David,” says one close friend. “I don’t think I could do it. Her ability to forgive is miraculous.” But for Kim, there is no other choice she could have made. “I love David,” she says. “And you don’t stop loving someone because they’re sick.”

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