Real crime TV shows are rapt with the Casey Anthony case and have been since the first 911 call was made. Crime show hosts and commentators, normally neutral, are actively prosecuting Anthony, ridiculing her every move in court. Did she wipe away tears? Fake. Fraud. Was she stoic? Heartless psychopath. Did she laugh along with everyone else? Monstrous.
Filicide — the murder of a child by the parent — is a horrid crime, but does this case merit relentless coverage? If so, why?
Because a mother is suspected of murdering her child. A mother would never harm her child, the myth goes, a mother automatically loves her child. Any woman who dares defy the myth is a demon, the most horrid of the horrid, worthy only of Dante’s worst level of hell.
Psychological studies on filicide are an interesting sociological microcosm of our larger society. The authors of A Review of Maternal and Paternal Filicide, wrote:
Despite findings that men commit filicide as often as or more often than women, paternal filicide has attracted limited research. Few of the studies investigating paternal filicide employed large samples of fathers…
Sara G. West, MD, her study, An Overview of Filicide, wrote:
Fathers are less often considered as the perpetrators in filicide cases, and consequently, there is much less focus on them in the literature. However, they are responsible for a large portion of child murder and worthy of independent investigation….It is important to recall that filicide can be committed by both men and women, though far less literature exists on paternal filicide than maternal filicide.
Men are “as often or more often“ “responsible for a large portion of child “murder.” Just how large?
Charles Montaldo, in his article, Women Who Kill Their Children, relates:
According to the American Anthropological Association, more than 200 women kill their children in the United States each year. Three to five children a day are killed by their parents.
Three children every day is more than 1,000 a year. Five children every day is more than 1,800. If 200 women kill their children, then how many men kill their children? How many of those children are killed by their fathers? Unanswered questions.
So why do the researchers minimize paternal filicide? Why do so many more studies of filicide focus on maternal filicide? Because of the cultural prejudice against women which has been passed down from ancient times.
In her summary, West noted:
Filicide has existed since the dawn of mankind. In ancient Greco-Roman times, a father was allowed to kill his own child without legal repercussions.
Filicide has a presence in literature from all eras. Perhaps the most famous is also the oldest, and that is the story of Medea, a woman who killed her children to punish her husband for his affair.
So even though it was fathers murdering their children, the mythology focused on mothers murdering their children and characterized it as women usurping male rights.
This cultural heritage is part of the reason why mothers who kill headline the nightly news while fathers who kill rarely make it to the front page even once. When they do, it is usually because they’ve also murdered people outside of their family, like Mark O. Barton in the Atlanta Daytrading Murders. This story discussed his other victims in depth, including those who were wounded but survived. It did not mention Barton’s estranged wife and two children he murdered before he went on his rampage at his place of business.
West went on to state:
In 16th and 17th centuries, a drastic change in the opinion on child murder occurred in Europe. France and then England established laws that made filicide a crime punishable by death. Both countries also presumed that the mother who was on trial for the crime was guilty until proven innocent, meaning that she was responsible for proving to the court that her child was not the victim of murder.
Which brings us back to the Anthony trial. All discussions about her assume her guilt and she is left with only one option to clear her name: prove she is innocent by proving her child was not the victim of murder.
Her prosecutors admitted they do not know the cause of death, thus cannot prove murder. They are inferring it by claiming the masking tape over the child’s mouth is the murder weapon, but they cannot prove the tape was placed there before death. There is no physical evidence proving Anthony killed her daughter: no DNA, no fingerprints, no proof she was in the lot where the body was found.
Yet people have concluded she murdered her daughter based on her actions after the time when her daughter is supposed to have disappeared, which is also in doubt. No, she didn’t call the police. Yes, she went out with her friends and had a good time. Looks like an uncaring mother. Guilty, yes? Not necessarily. None of that is proof she murdered anyone. Except in the mind of those who believe the cultural myths that surround motherhood.
The prejudice against women goes further. Anthony is charged with the death penalty. The Anti-death Penalty site discusses what constitutes a death penalty crime:
65 per cent of DR prisoners have a prior felony record. 10 per cent were previously convicted of a murder.
Most states require additional aggravating circumstances to make a murder eligible for the DP. An aggravating circumstance could be a prior felony conviction, kidnapping the murder victim, raping the murder victim or premeditating the crime, depending on what state you are in.
None of those fit Anthony the day she was arrested. After arresting Anthony for the murder of her daughter, the DA’s office prosecuted her for forging a $600 check — a felony. Was their motive simply so they could charge her with the death penalty?
Charles Manson was charged with the death penalty. Jeffery Daumer and Ted Bundy drew the death penalty. But O.J. Simpson wasn’t charged with the death penalty. Is Anthony’s crime, if she did it, more horrendous than his?
Unfortunately, she fits another pattern perfectly. The Death Penalty Information site reveals:
Currently on death row are thirteen women who killed their husbands or boyfriends, and another eleven women who killed their children. Two other women killed both their husbands and their children. These twenty-six women account for almost half of the fifty-three women now on death row.
Women who challenge the authority of men and the cultural myth of mother love compromise almost half of the women on death row. While men are on death row in substantially larger numbers, the same ratio of wife killers and men who kill their children does not exist. Male family annihilators are more likely to receive a life sentence.
Some women escaped the death penalty. Both Susan Smith and Andrea Yates were charged with the death penalty, although their juries did not impose that sentence. Both of those women exhibited serious mental disorders. The important point about both of them is the juries showed mercy, not the state.
The myths of motherhood and apple pie, maternal instinct and unconditional mother love are deadly for women. Montaldo quoted two experts in his article:
Homicide is one of the leading causes of death of children under age four, yet we continue to “persist with the unrealistic view that this is rare behavior,” says Jill Korbin, expert on child abuse, who has studied mothers who killed their children.
We should detach from the idea of universal motherhood as natural and see it as a social response,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes, medical anthropologist says. Women in jail reported that no-one believed them when they said they wanted to kill their children. “There’s a collective denial even when mothers come right out and say, “I really shouldn’t be trusted with my kids.”
Anthony didn’t want her child. She wanted an abortion. Her mother blocked it. She wanted to adopt her child out. Her mother blocked it. Then her mother spent years railing she wasn’t a good enough mother (despite the fact others testified she was a splendid mother). Part of Anthony’s defense is the dysfunction and abuse by her parents, including incest by her father and brother. Studies show incest is one of the determiners of maternal filicide, especially as the child nears the age the incest began to occur. This is termed the “anniversary reaction.”
It’s time we stopped believing the cultural myths and begin believing women who hate the idea of motherhood. That’s the surest way to stop maternal filicide and stop the inequitable imposition of death upon women who were never heard.