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Phyllis Goldfarb

faculty in the news

From the Bristol Herald Courier

June 2, 2005

female faces death penalty

VIRGINIA-- No one expects to get the call.

Sometimes it comes in the morning, sometimes at night. A 911 dispatcher
answers. A mother's voice comes on the line.

She's calling to tell police she just killed her child.

The call came in Houston 4 years ago after Andrea Yates drowned her 5
children in the bathtub - to save them from Satan, she said.

It came in Tyler, Texas, 2 years ago after Deanna Laney stoned 2 sons to
death and nearly killed a 3rd.

Police said the call came here April 15, the day prosecutors claim Andrea
Jennings Petrosky, 38, choked her 6-year-old son Garrett and held him
underwater in the bathtub.

He died 5 days later, after nearly a week on life support. His mother,
charged with capital murder, could face the death penalty if convicted.
She confessed after arriving at the city jail, authorities said.

2 months after the 911 call and Garrett's death, the questions that
surrounded the case remain unanswered.

Petrosky remains in jail, with a preliminary hearing set for Aug. 26. That
date could be pushed back further if her lawyers ask for a mental
evaluation, which could take months to complete.

Authorities have refused to release the recording of Petrosky's 911 call,
and the Bristol Herald Courier has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the
city to release a copy.

Friends and neighbors have said they can't understand how Petrosky - a
stay-at-home mother, active in her church and her son's school - could be
accused of such a crime.

Even the authorities, who have said little about the case, have indicated
they're at a loss to understand.

That question might never find an answer, experts said.

"We don't think of mothers that way," said Yvonne Downes, a professor of
criminal justice at Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y. "We think of them as
gentle, loving and nurturing. When a mother kills, it shocks us because it
goes against everything we want motherhood to be."

Most of the area's child killings in recent years have centered around men
- abusive fathers such as Daniel L. Draper, who shook and smothered his
4-month-old daughter to death in 2000, or mothers' boyfriends such as
Bobby Gene Godsey, who threw his girlfriend's 7-month-old son against a
wall in 1996 for crying.

In local cases in which mothers have killed, it's usually while joining a
husband or boyfriend in the abuse. Elizabeth Leftwich Jessie, for example,
helped her husband beat and torture her 4-year-old daughter Annie Leftwich
to death in Dickenson County's Hazel Mountain community in 1997. That
crime led Virginia legislators to pass Annie's Law, which allows the death
penalty for the killing of a child younger than 14.

National statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to kill
their children. Mothers commit about 55 % of such killings, the U.S.
Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a 1994 study of nearly 10,000 murder
cases.

Sometimes the mother kills out of rage because the child won't stop
crying.

Sometimes she just doesn't want the child. Some teenage mothers dump their
newborns in trash bins, for example.

Sometimes a woman who may have been abused or neglected in her own
childhood envies her child and the attention he receives.

Children face their greatest risk from such mothers in the first 24 hours
of their lives, studies suggest.

Experts believe most mothers who kill do so as a result of mental illness,
usually depression or schizophrenia.

"It's extremely common to find severe mental illness," said Phyllis
Goldfarb, a law professor at Boston College Law School in Newton, Mass.
"Sometimes there are extreme stresses, which, when combined with mental
illness, precipitate violence."

More than a 3rd of mothers who kill suffer from some form of depression,
studies suggest, whether postpartum or some other type. The depression
might be aggravated by drug or alcohol use, childhood or spousal abuse, or
recent changes such as loss of a job.

Those mothers often see killing their children as "an extended form of
suicide," said Robert Butterworth, a child trauma psychologist in Los
Angeles. "'I kill the one I most love.' The depression is so painful they
want to kill the child so they can spare them the pain of the world."

In some cases, the depression might become so severe that the mother
becomes psychotic, hearing voices and believing she has to kill the child
to save her from an even worse fate.

"It's a self-destructive impulse," said Downes, the criminal justice
professor. "You have so much self-hatred you think you're saving the child
from you. Or you're symbolically saving the child and know you will be
punished."

Those delusions often take a religious form. Andrea Yates said she drowned
her children to keep the devil from killing them.

"They're having this bizarre and emotional thought process," Goldfarb
said. "The only way they can make sense of it is in religious terms.
Sometimes they say they wanted their children to go to God. They believe
they're sending them to heaven."

The favorite methods in such cases, experts say, usually involve drowning,
poisoning, strangulation or smothering.

"They don't want to see blood," Downes said. "What they seem to want is to
eliminate life from the child so that the child won't look like they've
been hurt. This way when the child is dead, they look peaceful."

Killing the child turns out not to be so simple.

"It's not an easy thing to do," Downes said. "Kids squirm around quite a
bit."

Once the child dies, the mother often calls 911. She might even meet
police at the door with a confession.

"Confessions are extremely common," Goldfarb said. "Many are overwhelmed
with shame and guilt. They know they're going to be discovered."

The mother often walks through the court proceedings that follow with a
resigned, almost indifferent air.

"This is not a crime you commit with the expectation that you will get
away with it," Downes said.

A convincing story of mental illness might win a jury's sympathy - but not
always.

In the weeks and years that follow, friends and family wonder what went
wrong. They wonder what signs they missed - what they could have done to
prevent the killing.

"There must have been warning signs," Downes said. "If not, we invent
them. Because that would mean something like this could happen at any
time. We can't live with that."