Does the gender of a filicide offender unduly influence our judgement of guilt?

Hi all, it is a while since I have been around, but I have been following along. Recently we’ve had some interesting discussion around responsibility and justice, issues which I have begun to think more about in the last year or so, so I thought now would be a good time to ask for peoples intuitions about a case which I have found troubling.

A word of caution: the kind of case I’m going to talk about here is very disturbing, I won’t give as much detail as you would get in the news, but even so if you are at all prone to depression or if you’re a parent you may want to skip this (I, myself, ended up hospitalised 2 weeks after I started researching this topic).

So the kind of crime that has me worried is filicide- that is the murder of one’s own child. Now there are many different ‘reasons’ why one may kill one’s own child, but the cases I’m most interested in are those in which the killer is acting out a desire for revenge at the child’s other parent. The child is killed apparently to punish the other parent. When this is deemed as the motivation for the killing the killer is usually deemed responsible and punished. Both women and men have been found guilty of this crime. When killers are deemed to have killed for other reasons courts are more open to treatment based responses.

Now one thing that is surprising is that unlike other homicides, women perpetrate filicides around as often as men (some studies say more women, some say more men, some say the same amount, so there is some variation here- likely dependent on how samples are selected). This is true even though there are commonalities between filicide and other violent crimes (social isolation, poverty etc). However, when we look at courts responses to these killings we see rather inequitable responses. Women are much more likely to be hospitalised and men much more likely to be imprisoned. So, my question is this. Is this disparity a reflection of the real mental states of the killers or, does it, instead reflect some hidden sexist assumptions.

Now it is true that more men are deemed to have acted out of a desire for revenge at the child’s other parent, so perhaps the difference in outcomes for the killers is because of a real difference in motive. Alternatively, we may be more willing to accept an explanation in terms of revenge for a male killer because we assume that a mother (but not a father) could never choose to kill. Indeed, there is some evidence that legal systems are more open to pathologising filicide by mothers- in the UK if a mother kills her child within the first year of life she can have her sentence reduced by pleading “lactational psychosis”.

So what are the sexist assumptions that could lead to this disparity? Here is a list, some taken from the literature some off the top of my head:

  1. Women are not agents of action, they are victims of circumstance
  2. Women are ‘naturally’ passive and men ‘naturally’ violent (i.e. all men are predators and all women are victims)
  3. The role of mother (but not father) is to care for and raise one’s children at the expense of all else. All women are ‘natural’ mothers and so to violate the role of mother is necessarily pathological.

Now none of these beliefs should be endorsed- and I expected that many would vigorously deny that they believe such things- but are they lurking away as assumptions in legal proceedings? One thing I’ll be doing (hopefully this year) is developing a formal survey regarding peoples “mad versus bad” intuitions in the case of the kind of revenge killings I mentioned- looking to see if just the gender of the killer influences assumptions regarding guilt. But before we do any sciences let’s see what readers think:

The Supreme Court found a man guilty of killing his daughter. The court found that the man, who was involved in a custody dispute over two children, murdered his daughter in order to hurt his ex-wife “as profoundly as possible” they rejected a defence based around mental impairment. His rights of access to his children had been limited the day before the murder. He had spoken to his ex-wife moments before the crime and told her that she would never see her children again although, he only attempted to murder one child. He then drove to a court house. No attempts to physically injure or murder his former wife are reported. Similarly no suicide attempt is reported. The judge in the case is quoted as saying in his decision that he believed the man lacked insight into the nature of his crime.

The Supreme Court found a woman guilty of killing her daughter. The court found that the woman, who was involved in a custody dispute over two children, murdered her daughter in order to hurt her ex-husband “as profoundly as possible” they rejected a defence based around mental impairment. Her rights of access to her children had been limited the day before the murder. She had spoken to her ex-husband moments before the crime and told him that he would never see his children again although, she only attempted to murder one child. She then drove to a court house. No attempts to physically injure or murder her former husband are reported. Similarly no suicide attempt is reported. The judge in the case is quoted as saying in his decision that he believed the woman lacked insight into the nature of her crime.

Who is mad? Who is bad? (to ask and present the cases in far too simple a way!)

In closing I want to state that this is not idle fancy, if there are hidden sexist assumptions at play in judging guilt here then either some women are ‘getting away with murder’ or some men are being punished when it is immoral to do so. More importantly, in my opinion, as a soft-determinist, if we as a society are getting these judgements wrong then we are catastrophically failing in our duties toward children in the prevention of this crime. Strategies for the prevention of filicide must turn on the motive of the killers and if the motive is pathological then our response must be different.

(You might be wondering my opinion. I don’t think the issue is decided, but for my part I begin to lose a grip on what mental illness is if killing your own child isn’t evidence of mental illness).

Glenn.

 

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4 Comments

  1. gualtiero

    Glenn, thanks your challenging post. your question is very hard. all i can say is that in my personal experience i have run into sexist assumptions of this kind, i.e., assumptions that favor mothers over fathers. specifically, in cases of divorce, it used to be standard at least in the US to assign more custody of children to mothers than to fathers simply because of their gender. apparently this has been changing and 50/50 custody is becoming the new standard but not uniformly everywhere. this is one area where there is still work to do for fathers to achieve gender equality with mothers.

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  2. Glenn

    on that topic I do suspect the same stereotypes are at play in those judgements as well, and the same sorts of descisions are made in Australia. There is even one case I’ve read some academic discussion where the mother was awarded fully custody, even though her illness (drug addiction) prevented her from being able to adequately care for herself, let alone others.

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  3. David Duffy

    It looks like all the studies find mothers are more likely to carry out neonate or infant filicide than men, and we also know mothers are more likely to suffer mental illness than fathers after the birth of a child. It would then seem the prior probability that a mother was mentally ill is greater, even if there may be elements suggestive of a revenge motive in a particular case. I agree the literature on psychiatric assessment of male and female cases seems a bit confused, but “altruistic filicide” doesn’t seem to come up for the males very often.

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  4. Glenn

    thanks for your thoughts, it is worth noting that the literature seems to be moving away from the view that women are more likely to become ill following birth. Post natal depression, for example, is now seen as of the same kind as any other depression, just where the life events leading to the depressive episode are easily identifiable. It is true that neonaticide is almost always perpertrated by mothers, and that ‘accidental’ death due to abuse much more commonly by fathers (although the gender disparity is not as great as it is for neonaticide). Nor does my reading of the literature line up with yours on alturistic filicide (which is a confusing classification- because the suffering can be real or delusional), it depends where the sample of killers is drawn from (prisons, hospitals, coroners records) but across studies i don’t think there is a gender divide for this motive.

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