Infanticide general refers to the killing of a child. The offence has its origins in 17th century England. Infanticide was common in Australia in the early 1900s because an illegitimate birth and lack of child care would lead to dire social and economic consequences for a woman. The danger and cost of illegal abortion added weight to the mother’s decision. Today, the offence is viewed through the lens of post-natal mental illness, recognising that a new mother who kills their child while in this state is less culpable than someone who kills in other circumstances.
The offence of infanticide in Victoria involves the killing of a child aged under 2, and is found in section 6(1) of the Crimes Act 1958. The Act states that a woman will be guilty of infanticide, and not murder, if at the time she caused the death of the child she had a mental disturbance due to:
- not fully recovering from the birth or;
- a disorder as a consequence of giving birth.
The mother will be liable to a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 5 years. Courts rarely impose prison terms for the offence, however, opting for less severe penalties such as a Community Corrections Order.
For a woman to be found guilty of the offence, it must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- she was the natural mother of the child;
- she carried out the conduct that caused the death of the child;
- the child was aged under 2;
- her mind was disturbed due to not fully recovering from the child’s birth or due to a disorder as a consequence of giving birth.
What actions could constitute infanticide?
Examples of when a woman may be charged with infanticide include where:
- she has been unable to sleep for weeks and is mentally unwell as a result, and gives the child a lethal dose of sleeping medication;
- she is suffering from post-natal depression and smothers her child because the child won’t stop crying;
- she fails to seek medical help for her seriously ill child because she is too depressed to leave her home.
The Queen v Guode
In 2015, Akon Guode deliberately drove her car into a lake in Melbourne. Four of her children were in the car. Her 4-year-old twins and 16-month-old child drowned. Guode and her 5-year-old child survived. Guode pleaded guilty to the infanticide of the youngest child, the murders of the twins and the attempted murder of the oldest child. She was sentenced to 26 years and 6 months imprisonment with a non-parole period of 20 years. The sentencing judge described Guode, a Sudanese refugee, as having had “an extraordinarily difficult life – a life that most of us can hardly imagine”. A forensic psychiatrist gave evidence of Guode suffering a major depressive disorder, which had developed after the birth of the youngest child, at the time of the offending. On appeal in 2020, the sentence was deemed to have been “manifestly excessive” and was reduced to 18 years with non-parole period of 14 years.
The Queen v Nikat
In 2015, Sofina Nikat suffocated her 14-month old daughter and left the child’s body in a creek. Nikat pleaded guilty to infanticide. A forensic psychiatrist gave evidence that Nikat was suffering a recurrent depressive disorder, as a consequence of the child’s birth, at the time of the offending. Having served 529 days of pre-sentence detention, Nikat was sentenced to a 12-month Community Corrections Order.
The Queen v ZZMM
In 2014, ZZMM gave birth to a daughter, not being aware of the pregnancy until labour began. ZZMM placed her hand over the baby’s mouth for 30 to 60 seconds so as not to wake her family. When ZZMM realised the baby had died, she placed the body in a bag, cleaned the room and went to bed. Two days later, she hid the bag under a tree. A week later, she collected the bag and attended a police station. ZZMM pleaded guilty to infanticide. Psychiatric reports tendered to the court stated ZZMM had suffered from a rare mental state called “pregnancy denial”, which had led to “disassociation” and an inability “to think rationally and exercise appropriate judgement”. She was sentenced to a 1-year Community Corrections Order.
R v Azzopardi
In 2003, Leanne Azzopardi placed her 5-week-old daughter face-down in the bath, where the child drowned. Azzopardi pleaded guilty to infanticide. Medical experts gave evidence Azzopardi was suffering severe post-natal depression at the time of her offending. She was placed on an 18-month community-based order with a condition that she continue to receive psychiatric treatment.
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