Friday, August 10, 2001
Outcomes vary in trials of mothers who kill kidsBy DAVID CRARY-- The Associated Press
Juana Leija drowned two of her children in a bayou; she got probation. Susan Smith drowned her two sons in a lake; she was jailed for life. Christina Riggs smothered her two children; she was executed.
Seemingly similar crimes, but radically different sentences. Those cases hint at the wrenching choices awaiting jurors in Houston if Andrea Yates goes on trial for the drowning of her five children in a bathtub.
Harris County prosecutors said Wednesday they would pursue the death penalty against Yates, stunning legal experts who felt there was strong evidence that the 36-year-old woman was overwhelmed by postpartum depression or psychosis.
"I'm absolutely shocked," said University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker. "It's only less shocking because Harris County is infamous for its indiscriminate seeking of the death penalty."
Convictions of women for killing their children are not rare, but death sentences are -- especially in cases where evidence surfaced that the mother had serious psychological problems.
Even Susan Smith avoided the death penalty at her trial in South Carolina in 1995, despite her admission that she had lied by claiming her sons had been abducted.
"She was tried before a jury that could have given the death penalty, but still there was sympathy for horrific abuse and neglect by her mother and stepfather," said Michelle Oberman, a professor at DePaul University's College of Law, who has studied infanticide cases.
"It was still an incredibly heinous crime on her part, but one which we can view against the backdrop of a woman who is unstable."
Oberman said she was surprised by the Harris County decision to pursue the death penalty against Yates, when it appeared she was "acting not out of malice or an evil heart, but out of sickness."
According to Oberman, 29 other countries have specific laws that rule out harsh sentences for mothers who kill young children because of obvious psychological problems. In this nation, states set their own policies for handling such cases.
Juana Leija went on trial in Texas in 1986 after throwing six of her seven children in a bayou, killing two of them. She was defended by Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who argued she had been driven insane by her husband and negotiated a deal in which she received 10 years of probation.
"My client clearly thought she was saving the children by killing them," DeGuerin said in a telephone interview Thursday. He suggested the same circumstances might apply in the Yates case.
"Asking for the death penalty in this case is ridiculous," DeGuerin said. But "prosecutors are political animals, and they look to pleasing the public."
Christina Riggs was one of the few mothers in recent decades to be executed for killing her children despite offering an insanity defense.
A former nurse, she was executed by injection in Arkansas in May 2000. Riggs told authorities she intended to kill herself after slaying her two boys, but prosecutors told jurors that the children had become an inconvenience to her.
For a variety of reasons, cases in which fathers kill their children are usually viewed differently -- by attorneys, jurors and the public -- from cases involving mothers who kill.
"Killings by aggrieved father are generally done out of jealously and anger, directed at hurting the ex-spouse or ex-partner," said Steiker.
"Our society is very ambivalent in labeling women as murderers. To make sense of a crime through mental illness is much more common with women, and especially with mothers."
Harris County officials declined to elaborate Wednesday on their rationale for pursuing the death penalty, but Steiker and DeGuerin said prosecutors apparently wanted to keep all their options open, and perhaps maximize leverage in any bargaining with defense attorneys.
Since Yates' arrest, some female commentators have complained that media coverage has been overly sympathetic. Deb Weiss, an Internet columnist, wrote in June that "we are all debased by the American elite's instinctive defense of women, even those guilty of the most extreme and brutal acts."
But Lita Linzer Schwartz, a Penn State psychologist who has co-authored a book on infanticide, said such viewpoints ignore strong evidence that postpartum depression truly explains why some mothers harm their children.
"It's harder to make allowance for a father who kills," Schwartz said. "It's not due to hormonal changes, that's for sure."
Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.