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Baby killer conviction provokes controversy

Believed to be first mother convicted of murder, rather than infanticide, in 61 years

Edmonton Journal, By Karen Kleiss, June 24, 2009

A murder conviction handed down to a young woman who killed her newborn has touched off a debate about Canada's controversial infanticide law and the place of juries in the legal system.

Katrina Effert, 23, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance at parole for at least 10 years Tuesday after a jury convicted her over the weekend of second-degree murder.

Katrina Effert baby murder case - Crown Prosecutors Photograph by: Candace Elliott, Edmonton Journal
Crown prosecutors John Laluk, left, and Robert Robbenhaar outside court on Tuesday. Laluk said Katrina Effert's repeated lies to police were the strongest evidence against the Wetaskiwin woman.

The Wetaskiwin woman is believed to be the first Canadian mother to be convicted of murdering her baby since 1948, when Parliament added infanticide to the Criminal Code.

Defence lawyer Peter Royal said he will immediately appeal the verdict. On Monday, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joanne Veit rejected his bid for a mistrial, ruling that if the jury was wrong, the court of appeal will overturn the decision.

Neil Vidmar, a Duke University professor and a leading authority on juries, said Canadians still expect jurors to return verdicts that reflect their social values, and it is likely the jury in this case did just that.

He said studies dating back to the 1950s have repeatedly shown jurors understand even the most complex legal concepts and complicated evidence.

"Studies show the jury and the judge agree most of the time," he said. "And when they disagree, it's not because jurors don't understand the evidence or the law, it's because they apply a different set of values.

"That's not to say that every jury gets it right. Sometimes they get it wrong."

University of Winnipeg professor Kirsten Kramar, the author of Unwilling Mothers, Unwanted Babies: Infanticide in Canada, thinks the Effert jury got it wrong.

"She is absolutely being treated unfairly; there is no other woman who has been convicted of second-degree murder in this kind of infanticide case," Kramar said. "It is a travesty of justice and there is no doubt it will get overturned on appeal."

Kramar said governments and courts have long recognized that when young women kill unwanted babies after concealed pregnancies, there is some sort of social responsibility to be borne.

"Now we're seeing the development of punitive, retributive, eye-for-an-eye justice that really fails to understand the social conditions of mothering."

Kramar said Canadian prosecutors have in the past 15 years attempted almost a dozen murder prosecutions against women who kill their babies. Until Saturday, judges and juries refused to convict.

In court Tuesday, Effert did not look up when the judge handed down the mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree murder. She did not cry. She simply bowed her head, her face flushed red, as the judge tried to speak over the sound of broken sobs from Effert's mother.

As the young woman was led away, her father pressed his hands to the glass and pleaded with the sheriffs to let him speak to her. They shook their heads, no.

Wetaskiwin prosecutor Rob Robbenhaar said outside court that anyone who thinks the killing was infanticide has not taken a dispassionate look at the evidence.

"All the elements of second-degree murder were there," Robbenhaar said. "She killed this child when her mind was not suffering from disturbance."

Effort was 19 in the spring of 2005 when she secretly carried a baby to term and gave birth alone in her parents' basement. When the baby began to cry, she feared her parents would hear and wrapped her underwear around his neck five times. Then she wrapped his body in a towel and dropped him over the back fence into her neighbour's yard.

Days later, the neighbour found the body and police interviewed Effert several times. She told them she was a virgin. She later told them she'd given birth in her boyfriend's car, and handed the baby over to him. When she couldn't lie anyRead More ..she broke down and confessed.

Prosecutor John Laluk said the repeated lies were the Crown's strongest evidence against Effert.

Saturday's conviction was the second time a jury has convicted her of second-degree murder.

The case has renewed criticism of Canada's controversial infanticide law.

Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Children's Rights Council, said the law should be repealed because it is outdated and violates children's rights.

"It is a licence for women to kill babies," he said.

The social stigma of unwed motherhood is long gone, he said, and society provides services and support for pregnant teens before and after birth. In addition, he said, women are no longer thought to be irrational creatures dependent on their husbands and families.

He said if the law is repealed, women who suffer from mental illness--such as postpartum depression or psychosis--will still be able to present a so-called insanity defence.

"This has to do with valuing a baby's life as much as that of an adult," he said.

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