A Miami mother is drowning her six month-old baby in an apartment swimming pool when a maintenance man stops her and rescues the child. A Jacksonville woman asphyxiates her three children with car fumes. A Houston woman drowns her five children in a bathtub. A San Diego toxicologist poisons and kills her husband after he discovers her affair.
All of these crimes shocked the nation during the past week. But should we really be so surprised?
The truth is, female violence in American families is anything but rare. For example:
• According to the US Department of Justice, 70% of confirmed cases of child abuse and 65% of parental murders of children are committed by mothers.
• Police investigators and academics believe that 15% of the roughly 7,000 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) cases reported each year in the United States are really cases of suffocation, primarily committed by the mother. This alone accounts for at least 1,000 homicides a year. Criminologists point out many if not most cases of SIDS aren’t reported and, because autopsies are rarely able to distinguish between suffocation and SIDS, the actual number of murdered infants is probably much higher.
• Female juvenile crime rose 75% from 1980 to 1999, and female crime rose 200%. At the same time, violent crime nationwide declined.
• Infanticide in the industrialized nations is as common or more common as the killings of adults, and the vast majority of these infants are killed by their mothers, according to the World Health Organization
• A custodial mother is five times more likely to murder her own children as a custodial father, adjusting for the greater number of single mothers, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
And women are getting away with it. Among women convicted of killing their infants, two-thirds avoid prison completely and the rest serve an average of only seven years. The average prison sentence for females in the U.S. is only about 70% that of males for most violent crimes. A man convicted of murder is 20 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a woman.
How do women get away with it? For one, their victims tend to be the helpless, or semi-helpless, such as children, the elderly, and infants. Thus there’s less struggle in their crimes, and less evidence left behind. As noted by author Warren Farrell, a high profile expert witness in domestic violence cases, women tend to use “hands off” methods such as smothering and poisoning, which are less traceable. When killing husbands or other adults, women often hire others to do the killing. Female murderers tend to be older than male murderers, and thus are looked upon with more trust and less suspicion.
However, according to crime journalist Patricia Pearson, author of When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder, the reasons women escape punishment go far beyond the evidence (or lack of it) left at the crime scene. Female killers, Pearson says, are often successful at turning their violent crime into victimhood by citing, among others, defenses such as Postpartum depression, Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, and Battered Wife Syndrome. According to Pearson:
“The operative assumption is that the violent woman couldn’t have wanted, deliberately, to cause harm. Therefore, if she says she was abused/coerced/insane, she probably was.”
Pearson also blames male judges and law enforcement personnel and men in the media who don’t take women’s capacity for violence seriously and tend to make excuses for, and cover up for, violent women.
The case of Russell Yates illustrates Pearson’s point. His wife Andrea murders their five kids and he, while commenting on the horror of her crime, seeks to protect her from harsh punishment. During the week after the murders, writers, talk-show hosts, and talk show callers rushed to make excuses for Ms. Yates. One caller suggested that Russell Yates is the real perpetrator for allowing Andrea to be alone with the kids in her condition and that he should be charged with manslaughter. Another caller compared the murders committed by a pair of 10 year-olds to the Andrea Yates killings, saying that all three perpetrators need sympathy and understanding. The insulting infantilization of the mother--as if a grown woman is no more accountable for her actions than a 10 year-old--went unnoticed by both the conservative male talk show host and his feminist co-host. After the Miami near-murder, one prominent internet news service posted the story and asked readers to sound off on the question: “Should children be permanently removed from their mother if she tries to kill them?”
Treating the violent woman as if she were a child, or insane, or a victim worthy of sympathy--is this the way to protect society and our children from violent criminals?
This column first appeared in the Pasadena Star-News & Affiliated Papers (7/5/01).