A column of Dr. Dineen
"Sympathy over-rides justice for killer moms"
July 25, 2001
A 32-year-old widow lies in a Toronto hospital bed,
charged with murder. Her three-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter
will soon lie in their graves.
In Canada, the sad
story of the young doctor who, holding her infant in her arms, jumped
in front of a Toronto subway train, received national attention.
Last month, a baby
was found drowned in a Victoria condominium. His mother was charged
with infanticide. A young woman in Granby, Quebec, was charged after
her two children were found stabbed to death in their apartment. And,
in Calgary, after police found the decomposing body of a 15-month-old
boy in a vacated apartment, it was his mother who turned herself in.
These stories evoke
horror and bewilderment. We desperately search for answers to the questions:
Why would a mother kill her child? How can she possibly cope with the
atrocity of her acts?
Quickly our sympathy
swells for the mother. Surely, we think, there must be some explanation
when a woman does something so unnatural. The act of killing one's own
child defies the image we hold of mothers as nurturers, a belief we
cling to as we console ourselves that such things rarely happen.
Such murders, however,
are not as rare as we would like to believe. Each year, more than 1,000
children and infants are killed by their parents in the U.S, and a proportionally
comparable number are murdered in Canada. More often than not, it's
the mother who is the killer. A recent study by the US Department of
Health and Human Services reported that mothers constitute 78 per ent
of the perpetrators of these fatal forms of child abuse.
for the mother has influenced how the justice system handles these cases.
In 1922, the British Parliament was forced to redefine the crime of
infanticide as less than murder because it was virtually impossible
to get a jury to convict a mother of murder.
As Patricia Pearson
notes in her book When She Was Bad, "The point was to rid the courts
of the necessity of imposing murder sentences, since juries had been
refusing to convict women when the penalty was execution. For instance,
following 5,000 coroner's inquests into child deaths held annually in
Britain in the mid-19th century, only 39 convictions for child murder
resulted, and none of those women was executed.
Similarly, in Canada,
when a mandatory death penalty applied to the murder of children, courts
regularly returned "not guilty" verdicts in the face of overwhelming
evidence to the contrary."
When Annie Robinson,
in 1909, was convicted of smothering her two infant grandchildren, sympathy
over-ruled the judge's decision. The Canadian public was so disturbed
at the thought that she was to be hanged that the government commuted
her sentence; she ended up serving only 15 months.
Sympathy today finds
a different expression as psychiatric experts provide judges and juries
with diagnostic explanations for the crimes. Whether it's post-partum
depression, hormone-induced psychosis, maternal stress or morbid grief,
their interpretations hit an emotional cord, rationalizing and reinforcing
our sympathy. With circularity of thinking, they take the crime itself
as proof that the mother "wasn't in her right mind."
Such reasoning worked
for a Montreal mother who killed her six-year-old son. In sentencing
her, Mr. Justice Jean Falardeau wrote: "I have much difficulty
believing prison will dissuade someone who is sick." She received
a suspended sentence of two years, less one day, with mandatory psychological
counseling for depression.
The image of these
women sitting in prison overwhelmed by their grief and guilt disturbs
us; so, we embrace psychological excuses. But at what cost?
Whenever we accept
such biological explanations as "lactational insanity" resulting
from breastfeeding or the post-partum disruption of female hormones
or give credence to such notions as the unbearable stress of motherhood,
the effect is to recast women as weak and vulnerable creatures.
Once again, as in
Victorian times, we are led to see women as victims of their own bodies;
as helpless to their moods, defenceless in times of stress, subject
to irrational thinking and child-like objects needing protection.
While we can't help but feel sympathy for mothers who face the consequences of having murdered their children, we must still hold them responsible for the violent premeditated crimes they committed. To do anything less is to hold women as less accountable, less responsible -- just plain less.
by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun