As Usual, Mother Avoids Prison Sentence in Murder of Newborn

In Canada, mothers who kill their newborns rarely if ever serve prison time for their crimes.  That’s what this article quotes a defense attorney as saying and a judge agreeing about (Edmonton Journal, 9/10/11). It seems that Katrina Effert was 19 when she gave birth to her boyfriend’s child.  She was living with her parents, concealed her pregnancy from them and gave birth alone in their basement.  She then strangled the child and tossed it over the back fence.  She at first told the police she was a virgin and then told them she’d given the child to her boyfriend. That was back in 2005.  Hauled into court, Effert was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.  She was convicted again, by another jury, but once more the conviction was overturned. She’s now been convicted of infanticide and sentenced to three years probation.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Joanne Veit called Effert’s actions “a classic infanticide case — the killing of a newborn after a hidden pregnancy by a mother who was alone and unsupported.”

The evidence presented during her trial showed Effert killed the child while her mind was disturbed, a requirement needed for an infanticide conviction, Veit said.

The part about her being “alone and unsupported” is interesting.  In the first place, she wasn’t alone, she was with her parents.  The boyfriend’s whereabouts remain unmentioned by the article.  But it’s unquestionable that she wasn’t alone.  Nor was she unsupported unless she was paying her share of the rent, utilities, etc.  That too remains a mystery.  As to emotional/psychological support there’s no word. But the only extent to which she was “alone and unsupported” is the extent to which she chose to be.  She did that by hiding her pregnancy from her parents.  Now, they may not have approved of her being pregnant; they might have thrown her out of the house or worse.  We’ll never know since Effert didn’t tell them.  Speculation aside, Effert’s situation was brought about by no one but her.

While the Crown had argued for a four-year prison term, Effert’s defence lawyer had asked for a suspended sentence, during which she would be subject to probationary conditions. The maximum sentence for infanticide is five years, but the defence argued that virtually every case in Canada has resulted in noncustodial punishment for women.

Veit said she is bound to consider past decisions when sentencing Effert and noted that rehabilitation has been a key factor in those cases.

So according to the defense attorney, Canada essentially never puts women in prison for the crime of infanticide and the judge seems to have agreed.  My guess is that men would be treated differently. And indeed, much of the article deals with the judge’s sympathy for Effert.

“Naturally Canadians are grieved by an infant’s death, especially at the hands of the infant’s mother, but Canadians also grieve for the mother.”

…Veit noted that Effert has served the equivalent of almost eight months in custody, including time in the remand centre, time in prison immediately following her convictions, and time in a psychiatric hospital.

During sentencing arguments earlier this week, defence lawyer Peter Royal said his client had to be kept in segregated custody because other prisoners would throw things at her and threaten her. Women convicted of infanticide “are pretty low on the prison rung in terms of how they’re treated by other inmates,” he said.

Veit said she considered Effert’s time in custody to be a mitigating factor, along with the release conditions she has been under for the past six years.

“Ms. Effert has spent her young adulthood, from the age of 19 to the age of 25, with the formal necessity of having a parent chaperoning her every move,” she said, noting Effert couldn’t leave home without a parent except for work or choir practice.

I must say that I’m less than moved than the judge by the fact that Effert has had to be chaperoned by her parents for the past six years.  Neither am I impressed by the low regard inmates have for parents who kill their children.  Come to think of it, I don’t hold those people in very high esteem myself. Of course Effert is said to have had a “disturbed mind” when she strangled her newborn son.  It’s true that postpartum psychosis can be so severe as to render the mother incapable of appreciating what she’s doing.  But it’s equally true that there’s no finding of psychosis in Effert’s case.  Just how disturbed her mind was and why aren’t described in the article, but the mere fact that the defense attorney claimed that Effert’s lying to police was proof of same, essentially cinches an absence of psychosis.  The prosecution seemed to think that was a calculated attempt to avoid the consequences of her crime. So what we’re left with is something we see all too often – a mother being given a break for her criminal behavior regarding a child.  Aset Magomadova’s is a case in which a mother was given probation by a Canadian court for murdering her 14-year-old daughter.  There the excuses were that she was a refugee from Bosnia and her husband had been killed years before.  As Barbara Kay of the National Post pointed out, those things were doubtless trying to Magomadova, but they in no way excuse murder.  Neither does the desire to keep your parents in the dark about your pregnancy. But courts excusing mothers for their wrongful behavior regarding children takes many forms other than murder.  Time and again we see everything from perjury to child abduction to interference with visitation to paternity fraud excused by courts when done by mothers. Not long ago I reported on a Colorado man whose wife abducted their children to Australia.  Caught and forced to return under the terms of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, the mother was rewarded with primary custody by a Colorado judge and immediately decamped again. As you read this, the Tennessee Supreme Court is considering whether a man has any legal remedy at all for a mother’s paternity fraud against him. And so it goes.  The concept of gender equality in parental rights and duties seems particularly hard for courts to grasp.  Just why that should be so, I don’t fully understand, but our culture’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) belief in the sanctity of mothers seems to be the nut of the problem.  Until we abandon that myth, mothers like Katrina Effert will continue to kill their children and receive little more than a judicial tut-tut for doing so.

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