Lenient sentences often the greatest tragedy of all

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Two years ago a Prince Albert woman birthed a child in a Wal-Mart washroom and left it for dead in the toilet. According to April Halkett’s court testimony, she didn’t know she was pregnant, and when she went into labour in the bathroom stall, she was surprised when a baby fell out from between her legs into the toilet.

She refused offers for help from store staff who heard noises coming from her stall, but she cleaned up the floor, hid the child in a mound of toilet paper, washed herself up at the sink and went home to rest and recover. Four days later when local authorities found her she admitted that the baby was hers.

Despite all this, this week’s verdict deemed her not guilty of abandoning the baby. Apparently, the Crown couldn’t convince the judge that she had “planned to leave the newborn behind.” He explained, “However negligent her actions may have been, they were not criminal in nature."

She cried quietly when she heard his words, seemingly finding relief in his vindication of her trauma. If that isn’t enough, she plans to re-apply for custody of the child who survived the ordeal.

I could go on but the details are abhorrent. The only good thing I can say about it is that the child lives. That’s not always the case.

Last fall, an unnamed woman from Guelph was convicted of infanticide for killing a seven-week-old son in 1998 and a nine-week-old son in 2002. In another case in February, prosecution and defence offered a joint submission that Angela Keuhl of Ottawa be sentenced to one year of house arrest for killing her son. In 1998, Melanie Murphy served 75 hours of community service in Camrose for dumping her baby daughter in a garbage bag. Shelley Netter, Leanne Wise, Kelly Rector, Liza Santos and many more women have murdered their babies, but have been given mild or lenient sentences.

I am shocked how our legal system treats the newborn baby as an extension of what the mother feels it should be — either a human being or a distressing inconvenience. For some reason defence lawyers seem to want to absolve women of wrongdoing for harming or killing their children.

There is even a difference in sentencing between killing an adult and killing a baby — life in prison for murder and five years for infanticide. Is a baby a human being or not? Canadian law determines that it is by an established legal definition. According to some judges, the fact can be debated. Regardless of the survival of the child, a baby’s protection under the law now seems based on whether the mother wants it to be protected or not. I find it ironic that women in Canada struggled to receive acknowledgement as human beings but are now able to deny that title to those most helpless among us. It is irrational, immoral and infuriating.

Closer to home, it appears justice has been served. After Katrina Effert’s conviction last fall for second-degree murder in the death of her newborn son, her defence lawyer requested a mistrial, accusing the jury of misunderstanding the evidence and suggesting the conviction should have been infanticide rather than murder. Last week she was again found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury. Although I am saddened this woman must now face harsh consequences for her choice, I am relieved this particular baby’s murder is accounted for.

The tragedy is still overwhelming. She gets life. Unfortunately, her son won’t.

Dee-Ann Schwanke is a local resident who regularly comments on family and legal matters.

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