Toronto Star

Jul. 15, 01:00 EDT

When parents kill, penalty can be light

Average term in child homicide cases is three years

Michelle Shephard
Toronto Star

Just before Parth Kapadia turned 4, his mother shook him so violently he bled from his right ear and from cuts on his gums. After lying unconscious on his bed for four hours, his mother finally took him to hospital.

Three days later, he died.

"Courts must express society's abhorrence of parents who take the lives of children," an Ontario Court judge told 26-year-old Rajeshri Kapadia. Then he sentenced her to 3 1/2 years. Kapadia was eventually let out on early parole.

A Toronto Star analysis of cases from 1991-2001 shows parents convicted of killing their child receive an average of three years in prison. Mothers' sentences tend to be shorter than fathers'.

"It seems to me that a child isn't worth the same as an adult in terms of the punishment," said Ontario's deputy chief coroner Dr. Jim Cairns, a member of a provincial pediatric review committee that examines childhood deaths.

"A number of us who are in the field feel that these are the really vulnerable people. In manslaughter cases, an adult usually is able to at least defend themselves, but most of the children are defenceless."

Homicide Detective Sergeant Mike Davis, also on the pediatric committee, calls the killing of a child by a parent the "ultimate breach of trust."

"So many babies are killed when a parent, out of pure frustration, shakes the baby, puts them down and then walks away. When they come back, they realize they are unconscious," Davis said.

A 1997 Star investigation raised the issue of parents receiving lenient sentences for killing their children, focusing in particular on cases where the children's aid society was involved. Despite several coroner's inquests since, some that examined the issue of lenient sentences, Cairns said there has been little change in the trend.

Short sentences are usually handed down when crown attorneys, police or judges feel sympathy for the accused parent. Also, forensic evidence is often difficult to determine with a small child victim, and therefore prosecutors may settle for a plea to manslaughter rather than pursue a murder conviction.

Davis pointed to the precedents set by justices at the Ontario Court of Appeal level.

"The standard is too low. Until they raise the standard, no lower-court judge is going to impose a tough sentence just to have it overturned at the appeals court."

In the last 10 years, 37 parents have killed their children in Toronto:

  • Eight of those cases were classified as murder-suicides, such as the death of 6-month-old Cuyler Killinger-Johnson in 2000, when his mother Suzanne jumped to her death at a subway station with the infant in her arms.

  • In five cases, a parent was found "not criminally responsible" due to their mental state. In those cases, the parents were sent to psychiatric institutions following the child's death.

  • One mother received a suspended sentence in 1992 after pleading guilty to infanticide. The court heard that the 24-year-old woman hid her pregnancy from her strict parents, then threw her newborn son from a second-floor window on New Year's Day. The Criminal Code defines infanticide as an act or omission causing the death of a newborn by a mentally disturbed woman who has not recovered from trauma associated with childbirth.

  • Only two cases the death of Randal Dooley and the murder of 5-month-old Sara Podniewicz resulted in life sentences for murder. In both cases, the children were previously abused. Dooley's father and stepmother were convicted of second-degree murder. Podniewicz' mother and father were found guilty of the same crime.

  • Four cases are still before the courts.

  • Of the remaining cases, the average sentence has been just more than three years. Of those cases, the longest sentence was given to the father of 5-month-old Darshand Katwaru. He is currently appealing his 10-year manslaughter sentence for the 1996 killing.

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