Two months after the birth of her first child, Lucy filled up the bathtub and submerged her nude baby under water until she died. She then cut her wrist, swallowed a bottle of her antidepressant medication and a handful of aspirins. Lying on the bathroom floor, she slowly lost consciousness. Returning home from work, her husband Ben walked into the horrific scene, his newborn baby girl floating in the bathtub and wife laying in a pool of blood. He immediately called 911. It was too late for the baby, but Lucy survived, after a three-day long coma.
At Lucy’s trial for murder, Ben testified that that his wife suffered from severe depression and was not in her right mind when she killed their baby. Three mental health experts agreed; all concluded that she had been in a psychotic depression, delusionally believing death was the only form of relief for her and her baby. Lucy had a history of severe depression that reared its head in spades after childbirth. The district attorney saw it differently; he argued that Lucy was faking her mental illness and killed the baby to spite her husband. Ben had recently had an affair, and he had a history of drug problems. Though sober for a few years, his drug use had caused financial difficulties throughout their marriage.
After four days of deliberation, the jury found Lucy sane and guilty of second degree murder.
How rare is filicide, the death of a child at the hands of a parent? And what would drive a mother to kill her newborn? The killing of a child by its parent is not as rare as you might think. About 2.5% of homicides in the United States are perpetrated by parents who have killed their children. Almost 90% of the children are killed by their biological parents, and mostly by their mothers.
There are at least five determinants of filicide identified by social science research and clinical experience. As was the case with Lucy, the most frequent cause of filicide is severe mental illness. A mother might be schizophrenic and believe the baby is a personification of the devil. Or, like Lucy, she may be severely depressed, postpartum or otherwise, and suicidal. In a suicide-homicide pact, ironically believing that it would be be harmful to leave the baby alone in this world.
Altruistic filicide occurs when a mother kills her baby “out of love,” such as when a baby has a severe medical or neurological illness, or a developmental disorder, with no chance of ever having a normal existence.
A third reason why mothers kill their babies is due to loss of impulse control. This usually happens when a young mother has minimal or no family support, is uneducated and financially stressed, and has no outside resources or support. After nights of disrupted sleep and juggling all the other burdens that come with caring for an infant, a mother might react in frustration, for instance, and her baby to the point of causing brain damage and death.
Another cause of filicide is neglect. This usually occurs again when a child is unwanted.
A final reason, the one employed by the district attorney at Lucy’s trial is a revenge killing, whereby a mother kills her baby to get even with the father. This is a statistically rare occurrence, but the revenge killing theory is not uncommonly used in court. Research shows that jurors are more prone to sympathy toward mothers who kill their babies than they are towards men who kill their offspring. This is likely due to an intuitive awareness among jurors that women are prone to postpartum hormonal disruptions that affect their mind, which may lead to aberrant behavior. (Such was the case with Beth, a women I completed an insanity evaluation on and discussed in an earlier blog.)
Nonetheless, the revenge killing theory has a powerful sway. The idea of a mother, the archetypal giver of unconditional nurturance, killing her newborn baby deeply disturbing. Even with clear evidence of a severe mental disturbance, the notion of excusing her for such an unnatural act is sometimes just too much to swallow.