Other mothers murder their children because the children are not wanted or are resented. One such mother, Susan Smith, strapped her two small boys, a fourteen month old and a three year old, into the backseat of her car, rolled up the windows, and pushed the car into a lake.

She first claimed her two sons were taken in a car jacking by an unidentified black man. Smith concocted elaborate lies in the national media, pleading for the safe return of her two children. Later, Smith told police she intended to kill herself, but changed her mind at the last minute and jumped from the car.

In fact, her father had committed suicide, and Susan had attempted suicide at least once in her life. Her stepfather sexually abused her, with whom she continued to have a sexual relationship once she was an adult. Smith also had an affair with her boss and craved a relationship with him. When he ended the affair because he did not want the complication of children in his life, she became desperate to rid herself of her children.

Susan Smith was convicted of two counts of murder. However, on July 28, 1995, a South Carolina jury rejected the idea of sentencing a young mother to death for drowning her two sons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment instead.

As these widely publicized maternal filicide cases illustrate (see earlier Filicide is Different posts), juries show mercy by avoiding the death penalty where a manslaughter charge is not available.[24] Even though this country does not officially recognize that filicide is significantly different from other homicides, one U.S. study of filicide found that local district attorneys prosecuted only 64% of 171 cases over a 30-year period. [25] Of those cases that are prosecuted, juries as well as prosecutors are aware of the mental and emotional mitigating factors that make the death penalty disproportionate and inappropriate in cases of filicide and infanticide.

Even the vast majority of homicidal child abusers are convicted of manslaughter rather than of murder. [26] Perhaps because women kill their children in “gentler” ways than men, such as drowning or suffocation, often sedating the children first, [27] fathers are more likely than mothers to be charged with murder than manslaughter.[28] Similarly, more fathers than mothers convicted of manslaughter are imprisoned; convicted mothers are more likely than fathers to be hospitalized or treated rather than imprisoned. [29]

[24] Janet Ford, Note, Susan Smith and Other Homicidal Mothers – In Search of the Punishment That Fits the Crime, 3 Cardozo Women’s L.J. 521, 530 (1996).
[25] McKee, Why Mothers Kill, supra, at 12.
[26] Ford, supra, at 525.
[27] Linda Cylc, Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide, at 7 http://www.publications.villanova.edu/Concept/2005/Filicide.pdf.
[28] Yarwood, supra, at 1.
[29] Yarwood, supra, at 1.