When compassion for baby killers runs deep

July 15, 1998|By Linda Chavez

AMY GROSSBERG was sentenced last week to 30 months in prison for the death of her newborn son. Her boyfriend Brian Peterson, the baby's father, was sentenced to two years for his role in the crime.

Pity for parents

In November 1996, the fresh-faced teen-age couple's arrest made national news when their infant was found dead in a trash bin behind a Delaware motel where they had thrown him out in a plastic garbage bag. At the time, prosecutors in the case said they would seek the death penalty, but they soon weakened in their resolve as local public opinion shifted toward pity for the teen-age parents.

"They've been punished enough," a family friend told author Melanie Thernstrom, whose July 13 New York magazine cover story "Child's Play" dissects not only the infant's murder but also social attitudes toward infanticide generally.

Both Grossberg and Peterson pleaded guilty to manslaughter in separate plea agreements with prosecutors, but neither parent admitted to inflicting the skull fractures that contributed to the baby's death. Yet, according to Ms. Thernstrom, the evidence clearly showed that either Amy or Brian -- or both -- "bashed in [the infant's] skull while he was still alive and then left his battered body in a Dumpster to die."

So why did the young couple get off with such light sentences? Because killing one's baby usually results in a lighter sentence than killing an adult or even an older child, reports Ms. Thernstrom.

Neonaticide -- the murder of an infant immediately after or within a few hours of birth -- occurs about 250 times a year in the United States. What was unusual about the Grossberg-Peterson neonaticide was that both parents participated in the newborn's murder. Usually, only the mother is involved. According to a leading authority cited in the Thernstrom article, the Grossberg-Peterson case is unique in the 200 years of recorded history of this particular crime.

"There are no stories of two parents collaborating to kill their baby," says Dr. Neil S. Kaye, a forensic psychiatrist who studies infanticide. And mothers who kill their babies often receive scant punishment -- two years in prison is about average.

Roman justice

Under Roman law, Ms. Thernstrom reports, parents had the right to kill their own children until adulthood. Even today, many states do not consider the deliberate killing of a newborn first-degree murder. In England, the crime is treated as a mental disorder. And there are even some intellectuals -- among them, moral philosopher Michael Tooley -- who argue that newborns are not true "persons" and that killing them is not really akin to murder.

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a controversial article in the New York Times last November arguing that neonaticide is a fairly common practice in all cultures and that it has served an $H important role in human evolution, ensuring that mothers didn't waste time caring for infants whose chances of survival were slim anyway.

But if a newborn isn't a person, when exactly does a human being become a full person? Is it age or intelligence or the capacity to speak or reason that confers personhood on a human? And what happens if a human loses or lacks whatever attribute it is that confers the status of personhood? Are we free to kill him then as we are free to kill any other animal?

"All I want is for it to go away," Grossberg wrote Peterson early in her pregnancy. But "it" wouldn't go away and she never sought an abortion, despite Brian's pleading with her to do so. Not even after their baby was born did he become anything more than an "it" to his parents, a bloody thing to be thrown in the garbage.

"I'll never be able to forgive myself for what has happened," Amy told the judge at her sentencing. "All I can say is I'm sorry for what happened," Brian added in his statement. The statements were oddly passive, as if the young couple were spectators at an event in which they took no part. But their baby's death didn't just happen -- they caused it. Too bad their punishment fell so far short of justice for such a brutal and cruel act.

7+ Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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