Why juries often spare mothers who kill

The trial of Andrea Yates, charged with drowning her children, illustrates stubborn prevalence of filicide.

Many Hispanic children grow up hearing the legend of La Llorona (weeping woman).

It is the tale of a young Indian woman who falls in love with a handsome ranchero. But when he leaves her for another, she goes mad and drowns their children in a river. The spirit of La Llorona, the tale goes, still roams the riverbanks, crying for her lost children.

It's a gruesome piece of fiction, but now and then, it reflects real events - such as the high-profile case of Andrea Yates, now facing murder charges for allegedly drowning her five children in a bathtub before calling the Houston police to report what she had done.

The question before Texas - and the nation - is how to mete out justice to parents who kill their children. The answer is not as straightforward as it may seem. As in Mrs. Yates's case, such parents often struggle with depression, suicide, and other mental illnesses - and juries historically have seemed inclined to take these conditions into account, particularly for mothers.

Many mothers who kill their children do so out of desperation, "either economic or social or because of some mental instability," says Dick DeGuerin, a prominent Texas lawyer. "Generally, the justice system ends up recognizing that."

Surprisingly, mothers are the perpetrators in a majority of cases of filicide. While men are more violent overall - killing at a rate 10 times that of women - experts agree that mothers are to blame in child murders more than two-thirds of the time.

Another difference between the sexes is motive: Mothers tend to kill out of desperation. Fathers tend to kill out of anger. But an overwhelming majority of both believe they are doing the best thing for their children by murdering them, experts say.

In a study of 131 child-murder cases, Cleveland psychiatrist Phillip Resnick found that half the parents believed they were killing for altruistic reasons, or "out of love." This is "the most important factor that distinguishes filicide from other homicides," says Dr. Resnick, a member of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Though few incidents attain the notoriety of the Yates case, filicide is fairly prevalent in American society. A study in the 1960s found that 1 in 22 homicides in the US was committed by a parent who killed his or her child. More recently, an FBI study of data from 1976 to 1997 showed that a parent is most often the culprit whenever a child younger than 12 is killed.

Worldwide, the figure may be higher. Larry Milner, a Chicago physician who has written extensively on filicide patterns throughout the ages, estimates that 10 percent of all children die at the hand of a parent - either from abuse or from a single, sudden event.

Many experts draw a sharp distinction in motive between parents who kill their babies soon after they are born and those who do so after a child's role in the family has been established. Those latter cases, they say, fall into five categories: altruistic, delusional, unwanted, accidental, and vengeful.

Mr. DeGuerin has first-hand experience representing mothers who kill, having handled the much-publicized case of Juana Leija in 1986. She was so distraught by physical and sexual abuse at home, says Mr. DeGuerin, "she felt the only way out was to kill her children and herself, rather than let them suffer at the hands of a brutal father and husband."

In a scene eerily similar to the legend of La Llorona, Ms. Leija took her children to Buffalo Bayou in central Houston and started throwing them in one by one. Two of the seven drowned before help arrived. DeGuerin fought hard for a plea agreement, and in the end, Leija pleaded no contest to murder and received 10 years of probation.

"Desperate situations cause desperate reactions," says DeGuerin. "It's almost as if these women see the act as one of love instead of murder."

So it was in the case of Susan Eubanks, who shot her four sons before attempting suicide in California. At her sentencing in 1999, she called the killings her "final act of love. I truly believe I was saving my boys, not destroying them."

Prosecutors, though, claimed she was taking revenge on the men in her life. A jury and judge agreed, and she received the death penalty.

Ms. Eubanks' punishment, however, is not typical of such cases. Mothers generally receive lighter sentences than fathers do, lawyers agree. Juries are simply more sympathetic to mothers, who are the traditional nurturers of the family.

Take Susan Smith. She was facing the death penalty for loading her two sons into a car and pushing it into a lake in 1994. But a South Carolina jury rejected the death sentence and gave her life in prison instead, believing there were mitigating circumstances to her actions.

In some countries, such as Canada and England, mothers can be charged with infanticide, a lesser offense than murder. But even in the United States, where sentences have become increasingly punitive in recent decades, mothers are more likely to be hospitalized than sent to prison.

That is not true for fathers. "Men are viewed as not having the same intensity of bond to their children," says Resnick. "Juries are more likely to look at a woman who has killed her own children as being really sick and in need of help."

Several recent cases in Phoenix point out the discrepancy. In 1998, Kelly Blake killed two of her three children after setting herself and the children on fire. She was sentenced to life in a state mental hospital.

Today, a judge will decide if Shawn Grell of Phoenix will get life in prison or execution for burning his daughter to death. Mr. Grell's lawyers say their client is mentally retarded, but a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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