Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Juries Often Spare Mothers Who Kill ; the Trial of Andrea Yates, Charged with Drowning Her Children, Illustrates Stubborn Prevalence of Filicide

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Juries Often Spare Mothers Who Kill ; the Trial of Andrea Yates, Charged with Drowning Her Children, Illustrates Stubborn Prevalence of Filicide

Article excerpt

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. …

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