Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Jury's Extraordinary Leniency to Mother

Only a sympathetic jury led to a Victorian domestic servant avoiding the death penalty for killing a newborn baby as on sentencing the judge made it quite clear what he thought of the case and her involvement in it.

On 1st December 1885 the body of a baby boy was found in the cellar of Mr Murphy's emigrant lodging house in St Paul's Square. It had been covered in coal and boxes as if to create a makeshift tomb and was wrapped in clothing that was identified as belonging to Murphy's 23 year old domestic servant Kate McDonnell.

The body had a scarf tied tightly around its neck and a medical examination ascertained that the baby had been born alive and been breathing after the umbilical cord was cut. The cause of death appeared to be strangulation as the tongue was hanging out and when Mr Murphy told police he had challenged McDonnell over a suspected pregancy in September, she was arrested and charged with murder.

She stood trial on 17th February 1886 before the notorious Justice Day, her defence being that she knew nothing about the child being born or how her clothes came to be wrapped around it. Mr Murphy repeated his suspicions about McDonnell having been pregnant but admitted under cross examination that she was hard working, honest and he had total confidence in her.

Two doctors gave evidence and stated that the baby had lived for 24 hours before dying of of strangulation and that the knot had been tied very tight. The evidence was overwhelming that the baby had been born alive and deliberately killed, so it was up to then jury to determine if McDonnell had given birth to a baby had killed it, or she had been set up by somebody else. Unbelievably after two hours deliberation the jury decided that she was not guilty of murder, but instead found her guilty of concealment of birth. This was despite no suggestion being put forward by the defence that McDonnell could have given birth only for somebody else to kill the baby.

Justice Day minced no words in his sentencing. The man notorious for showing no mercy told McDonnell that this was one of the worst cases of infanticide he had ever dealt with and that 'Nobody could doubt that you either murdered the child or were party to its murder.' He then imposed the maximum sentence that the law allowed form concealment of birth, which was two years imprisonment with hard labour.

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