Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal


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Sunday, March 1, 1998

GETTING TOUGH ON MOMS

ONCE THEY WERE GIVEN SYMPATHY; NOW MORE ARE GOING TO PRISON WHEN THEIR NEWBORNS DIE

By DAVID KNOX
Beacon Journal staff writer

Six years before handcuffs were locked around Audrey Iacona's wrists, they were taken off another 17-year-old girl who also had given birth in secret to a child later found dead.

The baby girl was discovered by a janitor in a bathroom trash can at GlenOak High School, near Canton, on Feb. 19, 1992.

But unlike Iacona, who was led away to the Medina County Jail last month under the glare of television cameras after being sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, this teen-ager was not charged with murder, manslaughter or any other felony.

Stark County Coroner Dr. James R. Pritchard declined to rule the baby's death a homicide, although an autopsy determined the child had been born alive in the bathroom toilet stall, probably would have survived if provided medical care and died as a result of "asphyxiation due to, most probably, drowning."

County Prosecutor Robert D. Horowitz said he decided against filing felony charges against the teen because the sheriff's investigation found she had no warning before giving birth to the child six weeks prematurely and there was not enough evidence to prove she intended to kill the infant, who weighed little more than 3 pounds.

Given those circumstances, Horowitz said, he considered the death an accident and charged her only with failing to report it.

Family Court Judge W. Don Reader sentenced her to 90 days in the juvenile detention home but suspended the time behind bars on condition that she and her family submit to a strict probation and counseling program.

The teen-ager with shoulder-length blond hair cried silently as a sheriff's deputy unlocked the chain around her chest that bound her handcuffed arms.

The story of the GlenOak student points out a fact lost in the furor of publicity surrounding the Iacona case: The death of infants born to girls and women who hide or deny their pregnancy is nothing new.

Nor is it more prevalent today, experts say, despite the recent spate of similar highly publicized cases nationwide - most notably that of Melissa Drexler, dubbed by the news media as the "Prom Mom" after she delivered a 6-pound, 6-ounce baby boy in a New Jersey high school bathroom, hid the baby in a trash can, then returned to the dance floor.

Social-science researchers say neonaticide - the killing of newborns - was more common a generation ago, before the advent of the pill and the legalization of abortion.

What is different is the way the criminal justice system is treating the cases.

Until the 1990s in Ohio and across the nation, mothers who killed their newborns generally were treated as tragic, disturbed girls and women more deserving of pity than punishment.

Today they increasingly face long prison sentences. In the last five years in Ohio, three women have been convicted of murdering or attempting to murder their newborns.

Youth is no excuse

Audrey Iacona narrowly missed joining that list.

Iacona delivered the baby on May 1 in the basement of her parents' Granger Township home. The body of the boy, seven to eight weeks premature and weighing 3.8 pounds, was found by sheriff's deputies wrapped in a bloody towel inside two plastic kitchen garbage bags. Pathologist Cristin Rolf, who performed the autopsy for the Cuyahoga County coroner's office, ruled the death a homicide.

Because of a 1996 change in state law, Iacona was tried as an adult. The jury hung 7-5 in favor of finding her guilty of murder before convicting her of involuntary manslaughter by reason of child endangering.

Why the change if the nature of the crime and its frequency have remained the same?

The most likely explanation is that Iacona and the other recent cases represent a more fundamental change in the public's attitude: that prison is the only appropriate punishment for serious crime and that youth is no excuse. Neither of those statements was considered generally true for mothers who killed their newborns until about 10 years ago.

The only women serving time in Ohio's prisons for murdering or attempting to murder their newborns were convicted within the last five years.

The first was Patricia A. Riedel, 44, of Lorain County, sentenced in 1993 to six to 25 years for the attempted murder of her newborn, who was found alive in a trash container near her home.

Two years later, Rebecca L. Hopfer, 21, of the Dayton area, was sentenced to 15 years to life for the killing of her baby daughter, who was found in a double plastic bag at a trash collection center. Hopfer was 17 when she delivered the child.

In 1997, Kathryn E. Burton, 24, of New Dover (near Marysville) in Union County, also got 15-to-life for striking and killing her son shortly after birth and burying the body in her back yard.

Convictions rare

It's possible there might have been earlier cases - the state doesn't keep statistics on neonaticide prosecutions. But Maralene Sines, administrative assistant to the warden of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville said neither she nor other senior staff members could recall any other inmates who served time for murdering newborns.

Manslaughter convictions for neonaticide also appear to be rare. The Marysville staff and other research turned up only two current inmates.

Jennifer A. Pyles, 22, of Steubenville, was sentenced last fall to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter of her newborn. The baby, who was born alive and full term, was found stuffed in a garbage bag in the trunk of a car.

Carolyn D. Johnson, 31, of Middletown, is serving three to 15 years for the 1991 death of her infant, abandoned in a trash bin.

The lack of convictions before 1990 isn't the result of fewer newborns being killed.

Statistics going back more than 50 years, compiled by University of Georgia demographer Everett S. Lee, show the killing of babies within the first hour or first month after birth was much more common 30 years ago. Lee cited the availability of birth control pills in the 1960s and the legalization of abortion in 1973 as the reasons for the drop in deaths.

"There is no question they (neonaticides) are less prevalent than they used to be," Lee said.

Lee said that he suspected the number of newborns killed in earlier decades was even higher.

"It's a lot harder to hide them than it once was," he said. "Living in the woods, it was very easy to bury a baby."

Barbara Kirwin, a clinical psychologist and forensic expert for more than 25 years, agreed that the number of newborns deliberately killed "over the past 25 years has pretty much remained constant."

"We're not having an epidemic of this," she said.

Change in attitude

What has changed is the attitude of the criminal justice system toward the crime.

Kirwin played a role in bringing that about. She was a consultant for the prosecution in the trial of Stephanie Wernick, a New York college student accused of murdering her newborn in December 1990 by stuffing wads of toilet paper down the infant's throat, then placing him in a plastic garbage bag.

Kirwin was brought into the case because the defense had argued that Wernick should not be held responsible for the death since the trauma of the unassisted birth left her suffering from "neonaticide psychosis," meaning she did not know right from wrong.

Kirwin, who has consulted on more than a hundred homicide cases, said such a defense is recognized in England, where a mother who kills a newborn cannot be charged with murder.

While there is no such law in the United States, Kirwin said her research showed prosecutors until recently acted as if there were one.

Kirwin was hard-pressed to find any cases of mothers serving prison time for killing newborns.

"It was rare," she said. "What we're seeing now is it's not rare."

The Wernick case helped bring about that change. She was convicted after a New York State Court of Appeals in 1993 ruled out an insanity defense because the "neonaticide syndrome" was not recognized by the scientific community.

Kirwin said a pioneering 1970 study, Murder of the Newborn, conducted by Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University, provided no evidence of such an ailment.

Resnick, who was consulted by lawyers in the Iacona case, concluded that girls and women who dispose of their newborns aren't essentially different from others who kill. The motive is often the same: to eliminate a problem.

Kirwin agreed.

"There has to be a recognition that there is a victim to these crimes and a wrong has been done," she said. "Most of the time, these girls are responsible."

No threat to society

That said, Kirwin objected to the trend toward long prison terms, arguing the pendulum is swinging beyond justice.

"We're screaming for vengeance," she said. "We have to look at not only meting out justice, but what is the purpose of sentencing.

"When you put young, impressionable girls in a jail setting, does it make them better?"

Unlike other violent offenders, women who commit neonaticide don't represent a threat to society, Kirwin said. Nor do they generally kill again.

"The recidivism rate is practically nil for these women," she said.

Kirwin said she favored house arrest and "heavy sentences of community service" instead of prison, except for women who violently kill their newborns.

"I think they should give back what they took from society," she said. "I'm a believer in the parole system."

Kirwin sees a temptation to "over-zealotry" among prosecutors. '

"It's the law-and-order mentality today," she said. "Overcharging is a way to demonstrate how in touch they are."

Kirwin contrasted Iacona's eight-year sentence with the punishment given Wernick, who was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide but didn't enter prison until 1996 after exhausting her appeals.

"Stephanie Wernick was older, showed much more brutality and she's going to be walking in 18 months," Kirwin said.

Michelle Oberman, associate law professor at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, also argued against long prison terms.

Oberman, who did a 1996 study of 47 cases of neonaticide, contended that most teen-agers who kill newborns, while responsible for their actions, deserve consideration because of their youth and the psychological effects of hiding or denying their pregnancies.

"I support the notion that there is a taking of a life," Oberman said. "But the idea that incarceration is the only punishment is perverse.

"Whatever it is that led her to this action is not likely to be remedied in prison. All we're satisfying is our blood thirst for revenge for taking a life."

Denying pregnancy

One person who agrees that prison isn't proper punishment for teen-agers like Audrey Iacona is the mother of the baby found in the trash can at GlenOak six years ago.

"Not to say what happened to the baby was right," she said, "but putting her in prison will just ruin her."

Now 23 years old and the mother of three children, the woman said she understands how and why a teen-ager could deny being pregnant until it was too late.

The woman asked not to be identified. Her name was not revealed in earlier newspaper stories because her case was kept in juvenile court.

"I kind of thought I was pregnant," the woman said, explaining that two weeks before the birth, she made an appointment for a pregnancy test at a health clinic.

"I just didn't go," she said. "I kept spotting so I hoped maybe I wasn't pregnant."

The woman said she had reason to fear the pregnancy: The father was 27 years old and their child would be biracial.

"My dad's really prejudiced," she said, adding that the stormy relationship with her father already had landed her in juvenile court.

Although Judge Reader had suspended her 90-day sentence for failing to report the death, the woman said she ended up serving the time in the detention home because she broke her probation by running away from home after getting into a fight with her father.

She also continued her relationship with the man who got her pregnant. Her three children were all fathered by him.

But after the third child, she broke it off.

"I'm not saying my children are a mistake," she said. "I'm saying he was a mistake."

A price to pay

Even though she was not charged with her baby's death, the woman said there was a price to pay. She had been a track star - continuing practice right up to the birth - and had been offered an athletic scholarship to college.

"I lost my scholarship," she said.

Some blamed her for the baby's death - even if the authorities didn't.

"People broke the windows out of my car," she said. "I graduated (high school), but they wouldn't let me come back to school. I had to do home study."

Despite that, the woman said she thinks she was treated fairly six years ago.

"Now I'm older and I understand a lot more of what happened," she said.

The woman continued her education. She was trained as a medical technician and works for a medical laboratory, drawing blood from residents of area nursing homes.

In May, she said, she plans to start college part time and hopes to become a registered nurse.

She also is buying her home.

There are regrets.

After the delivery at GlenOak, she said, she was told by her family and staff at the hospital where she was treated that the baby was stillborn. She didn't know about the autopsy report indicating the child had been born alive until she was interviewed by a reporter this past week.

"I could have handled it different," she said of that day in the school's bathroom in 1992. "I should have gotten help. There was a teacher right outside the door. But I wasn't even thinking of that."

That's why she doesn't think Audrey Iacona belongs in prison.

"That's just like sticking someone on welfare," she said. "If given a chance, she might be able to change her life like I did."


© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal

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