A column of Dr. Dineen in

"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.

Recently we've been hearing about other mothers like her -- mothers who kill their children. The most widely publicized was the Houston mother who murdered five by drowning them.

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.

Historically, sympathy 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.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun