The Age

Thursday 20 May 1999

A mother is freed to begin a lifetime of punishment

By RACHEL GIBSON
The Age (Melbourne)

Dispensing justice is rarely a simple matter of black and white; right versus wrong; good versus evil. When Antonietta Villante stood in the dock in the County Court yesterday, to await sentencing for causing the death of her two-year-old son, this could not have been more clear.

On the surface, the task facing Judge Michael Higgins should have been a simple one: to impose a sentence on a young woman who had done something most people would have had difficulty understanding.

But as he began to repeat for the court the circumstances that led to the devastation of a family, he needed little reminding that part of his task was to punish. It was clear the young mother had taken on that job some time ago.

This was a woman who had downed enough champagne for five people and then packed her little boy into her car to drive home, somehow unconscious of the terrible consequences this could bring.

Here was someone who had taken the life of her younger child two days before Christmas, devastating a father and the brother who loved him.

But human behavior is never uncomplicated. And as Judge Higgins made clear yesterday, even those whose actions seem unconscionable sometimes deserve our compassion.

No one can know what the 26-year-old mother from Cranbourne South was thinking on the afternoon of 23December last year. During her court hearing on charges of culpable driving, the court was told she had consumed eight glasses of champagne at a pre-Christmas lunch and then two more at another function.

When a blood-alcohol reading was taken after her car had veered on to the wrong side of Pearcedale Road, Cranbourne South, and hit a tree, it showed she was almost three times over the legal limit.

Villante had been driving at 93kmh in a 100kmh zone, but had swerved, she said, to avoid hitting a rabbit.

Her son, Jacob, died after suffering a fractured skull and associated brain damage.

But, as became clear in court yesterday, Villante was not in any normal frame of mind that day. Indeed, she had been deeply depressed for some time, suffering post-natal depression after the birth of her son, a condition exacerbated by the suicide of a close family member. At the time of the accident she had been taking medication for her depression, the judge said.

Her remorse since had been both ``genuine and very significant'', he said.

``It is apparent that you are fully conscious of the fact that your conduct that night caused the death of your two-year-old son,'' he told Villante as she sobbed quietly in the dock. ``That is a consequence you will have to live with for the rest of your life.''

Suspending a 15-month prison sentence for two years, Judge Higgins said it was not in the interests of Villante, who would require intensive grief counselling, nor the community, to jail her. ``That would be a crushing sentence having regard for your psychological state,'' he said.

Free to leave the court, the distraught woman sought comfort from her husband and family. Her barrister, Mr Bob Kent, QC, deeply touched by the woman's suffering, spoke briefly outside. ``She is the most destroyed human being I have ever seen,'' he said.

with SALLY FINLAY

Copyright (c) David Syme & Co 1999.