Updated 2019 06 13, to add links to related articles.
This is a commentary on a murderer who went free because she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a common outcome of women standing trial for murdering their child(ren). The story involves the “Loving mother who didn’t understand what she was doing” when she drowned her 16-year-old daughter.
She is unlikely to be declared criminally insane and will without a doubt in short order reconvene her work as a productive member of society. Nevertheless, the jury took just 21 minutes to return the verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury agreed that she either did not know the quality of her actions; that she did not know what she was doing was wrong, or that she was unable to refrain from what she was doing.
It was apparently not put into question by anyone that the killer was unaware of the immediate consequence of her actions, namely the death of her daughter that she had wanted to bring about. The killer could for that reason not have been completely deranged, could not possibly have been totally insane.
Still, the killer has been properly declared to be a victim. To state otherwise would, in “Justice Carney’s words, who, in summing up, had advised the jury that to return any other verdict would be to suggest that “all psychiatry is bunkum””, be heresy. “Superintendent Aidan Roche, of Thomastown Garda Station, later said he welcomed the verdict.”
Juries have historically been unable to find women guilty of having committed capital offences. Infanticide is a category of crime that was invented especially and solely for women who killed their young children, so as to alleviate the need for juries to have to find such women guilty of murder. According to Patricia Pearson, author of “When She Was Bad: Violent women and the myth of innocence”:
In England, support for hormones as the cause of all maternal aggression against infants is enshrined in the law. In 1922, parliament introduced the Infanticide Act, which reduced the crime automatically from murder to manslaughter on the basis of insanity if a mother “had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to such child, but by reason thereof the balance of her mind was then disturbed.” The point of the Infanticide Act was not that British doctors had suddenly discovered a link between postpartum hormones and violent behavior. To this day that link hasn’t been categorically established. The point was to rid the courts of the necessity of imposing murder sentences, since juries had been refusing to convict women when the penalty was execution. For instance, following five thousand coroner’s inquests into child deaths held annually in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, only thirty-nine convictions for child murder resulted, and none of those women were executed. Similarly, in Canada, when a mandatory death penalty applied to the murder of children, “courts regularly returned ‘not guilty’ verdicts in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” [p. 80]
It appears that at about the same time as women were given the right to vote, they were also given the benefit of being not accountable for their actions by reason of insanity due to hormonal imbalance.
That was just a first step. The age of the children who became victims of child murder within the definition of “infanticide” was extended to one year, from the previously “acceptable” one to two days. Patricia Pearson says:
In 1938, Britain revised its infanticide statute, extending the age of victims from “newly born” to “under the age of 12 months.” To justify this extension, the revised statute cited “the effect of lactation” on a woman’s mind. It was decided, in effect, that breastfeeding could drive women mad. The experts who proposed the revision to the courts privately believed that social and psychological factors were more critical than biology. Studies consistently show, for example, that preexisting histories of depression and life stress are a common denominator in women with postpartum mental disorders. But psychiatrist J. H. Morton defended the diagnosis of “lactational insanity” as being acceptable to conservative judges and barristers. It was never proposed that the Infanticide Act forgive mothers for killing older children, spouses or others, even while said to be suffering from the same insanity. [p. 80]
However, as is clearly evident in numerous cases of mothers who murder their older children, spouses or others, the “not guilty by reason of insanity” finding is a frequent outcome of trials for any and all murders committed by women.
The reality of it all is that women murder, that they murder especially their own children, that they do it often and far more often than is the case with men, but that society is compelled to rationalize women’s guilt away by whatever means possible and that none of those means need to be rational, as long as they are expedient in maintaining the myth of female innocence.
See also Richard Stephens’ analysis of the myth of female innocence with respect to the fairly recent denial (but not all that long ago widely acknowledged prevalence) of the phenomenon of female serial killers.