On 23rd January, Mary Barnett, the Chicago-based single mother of the 6 months old baby Alison, suddenly left for San Francisco to meet her fiance. The baby, having been left unattended was found dead in Barnett’s apartment a week later. That a mother could leave such a young baby unattended for several days is shocking, despairing and anger-invoking. The slow and painful death of the innocent baby makes understandable such reactions from people, especially the prosecutors, who have charged Ms. Barnett with second degree murder (intentional murder without premeditation). Upon succeeding in proving this charge the guilty could face up to 18 years in prison. As I am one of the jury members, I will evaluate the arguments of the lawyers and witnesses from the prosecution and defense sides. Based on the strength of their arguments I will arrive at the most appropriate judgment for this case.
Caroline Hospers, who is Mary Barnett’s neighbor was the first witness called up by the prosecution. Having known Ms. Barnett for a while, she is able to give an insight into the lifestyle and character of the latter. And she is highly critical in both counts. She thinks of Ms. Barnett as a ‘disgrace’ for the reason that she does not have a husband and parties and sleeps around with men. She also thinks poorly of Ms. Barnett’s addiction to alcohol. In my view, the private life and sexual habits of Ms. Barnett does not have a great bearing on the case. But her addiction to alcohol can come in the way of caring for a baby. Again, her alcoholism does not automatically validate the ‘second-degree murder’ charge, but makes ‘parental negligence’ a more valid claim. Though Hospers is a key witness, the evidence provided by her is circumstantial and deductive, whereas more concrete direct evidence would be required to pronounce Barnett guilty.
Policeman A was the next witness called upon by the prosecution. The policeman’s observations of Ms. Barnett happened immediately after the baby was found dead (on January 30), hence making his role important to the trial. This is especially so since he recounts details of the scene and the oral statements given by Ms. Barnett, the latter giving us a peek into her disturbed psychological state – both before and after the event. For example, Policeman A produces the following statement given by Ms. Barnett in the scene of the tragedy: “I remember making airline reservations for my trip. Then I tried to find a baby sitter, but I couldn’t. I knew that I was leaving Alison alone and that I wouldn’t be coming back for a while, but I had to get to California at all costs I visited my mother and then left.” The high state of apathy and confusion, and a total lack of maternal instinct in Ms. Barnett’s disturbed psyche is evident from this statement. This recorded statement suggests that the death of the baby is more an act of ‘grave parental negligence’ than ‘intentional murder’.
Dr. Parker is a professional psychiatrist who “has been involved in many judicial hearings on whether a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial and is familiar with these legal tests”. Hence, his interviews with Ms. Barnett are key to the trial. His general assessment is that Ms. Barnett’s apparent confused and disturbed state of psychology largely developed ‘after’ January 30 when she discovered the dead baby. Presently, her mental disturbance is more a product of deep guilt and shame that have arisen due to her highly irresponsible behavior and less a product of deep-rooted malady. Hence, Dr. Parker’s professional view suggests that Ms. Barnett is certainly ‘guilty’. But the exact measure of her guilt is what I need to infer.
On the defense side, the first witness brought to questioning is Alice Jones – a long time friend of Mary Barnett. Her evidence is one of the weakest, for there is likely to be bias created by her friendship with the accused. Moreover, Ms. Jones is neither a law-enforcement official nor an expert in psychology to add weight to her evidence. She talks in sympathetic tones of how Ms. Barnett was going through a tough time in her personal life. Ms. Jones opines that her friend eventually “lost touch with reality”, leading to the tragic death of the baby. And she doesn’t think that “she realized that she was leaving Alison (the baby) unattended. She loved her so much.”
Dr. Bloom is the psychologist whom Ms. Barnett has been visiting both before and after the tragic event. In his view, Ms. Barnett’s post-partum depression, after the birth of Alison, is a key factor in the spiral of her mental decline. During this phase, Ms. Barnett felt “a loss of purpose, a sense of hopelessness, and a deep depression” that made her prone to losing touch with reality (as suggested by Alice Jones). Dr. Bloom’s testimony is quite key to arriving at the judgment, for he has seen Ms. Barnett either side of the event. He is of the professional view that Ms. Barnett is as much a victim as a victimizer. Taken in combination with evidence from other witnesses, the charge of second degree murder does look tenuous.
The final defense witness is Ms. Barnett herself. She makes a case for how she is deeply mentally troubled and her agony is only compounded by the loss of her beloved baby. But there is likely to be intrinsic bias in her testimony. Considering that hers is a personal and not a professional presentation, her words will carry less weight in the final judgment.
In conclusion, having weighed arguments from both sides, I will conclude that Ms. Barnett is “not guilty’ of the charge of second degree murder (intentional murder without premeditation). It is fairly certain that she did not intend to kill the baby. Neither does it appear that she volitionally not cared for the baby. This should exonerate her of charges of gross child abuse as well. It is difficult for me to believe that Dr. Bloom did not alert community/public welfare officials about Ms. Barnett’s precarious condition. While he was treating Ms. Barnett for severe anxiety and depression, did the baby’s welfare not cross his mind? In my view, Dr. Bloom is also partly guilty, in terms of not considering all aspects of the patient’s life. Ms. Barnett should receive a moderate prison sentence for grave parental negligence while also receiving psychiatric treatment. She should not be allowed to have babies unless declared mentally fit for such an arduous responsibility.