Cheryl L. Meyer

(WOMENSENEWS)–The weekend after Andrea Yates was convicted of drowning her five children in a bathtub and sentenced to life in prison, authorities say at least two men killed or tried to kill their families of four or more children.

These cases, however, garnered fleeting attention, underscoring the difference in how the media treats mothers and fathers accused of killing their children.

On Saturday, the same day the story on Yates’ life sentence hit the newspapers, two New York City tabloids ran articles about killer dads.

On page two of the New York Daily News, opposite the Yates story on page three, was a piece headlined: “Dad’s rage nearly fatal: Family narrowly escapes fire sparked by tax woes.” The story went on to explain that a Brooklyn man, allegedly distraught over owing money to the Internal Revenue Service, became intoxicated, barricaded his front door, and tried to set his house on fire with his wife and four children, ages 9, 8, 6, and 2, all inside. Police arrived in time to save the family after a call from the man’s wife.

Buried on page 16 of the New York Post was a tiny, three-paragraph Associated Press report out of Oregon under the headline: “Family of six dead in murder-suicide.” The first paragraph read: “A father apparently shot his four children and wife to death in their bedrooms, then used the rifle to kill himself, authorities said.”

And while the Yates case was generating extensive coverage, the media hardly noted the case of Adair Garcia, a 30-year-old father of six living near Los Angeles, who was arrested on Feb. 21 for murdering his five children, ages 2 to 10. “Apparently despondent over marital troubles,” he “allegedly lighted a charcoal grill . . . in the living room of the family’s home,” the Los Angeles Times reported. All of the children died from asphyxiation. And, in contrast to the nearly instantaneous decision by the district attorney in the Yates case to seek the death penalty, the district attorney in the Garcia case has not decided whether he will do so.

Women Who Kill Seen as ‘Mad’ or ‘Bad’

These stories do not leave as indelible an impression as the story of Yates, dubbed “Killer Mom” by FOX News, and “Tub Mom” on page one of Saturday’s Daily News, say experts who study women who kill.

“The press kept calling Yates ‘mad’ or ‘bad.’ That’s because we have certain expectations for men and women. We don’t expect women to murder their children,” said Cheryl L. Meyer, co-author of “Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms From Susan Smith to the ‘Prom Mom.'”

While men kill more than women overall (men commit homicide roughly eight times as often as women), they are punished less severely in cases of child murders, said Meyer, whose research found that female prisoners convicted of killing their children with the help of a male partner received stiffer penalties than those men.

Meyer, an associate professor of psychology at Wright State University, and her co-authors, interviewed 40 women in prisons following their convictions for killing their children in the 1990s. She said in approximately eight of those cases, mothers killed their children with the assistance of a male partner, either the child’s father, stepfather or the mother’s boyfriend. In those cases, the mothers received penalties equal to or harsher than those the men received. In one instance, Meyer said, one couple received the same sentence even though the woman was at work at the time of the actual murder, which took place at her home.

Still, women are not charged with capital crimes nearly as often as men, and when they are charged, jurors are less likely to send women to death row, said Annette M. Lamoreaux, the East Texas Regional Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Right now, there are 54 women on death row in the United States–less than 2 percent of the total death-row population. There are six women on death row in Texas, two as a result of convictions in the murders of their own children. In the past 100 years, 47 women have been executed in the United States. Since 1976, eight women have been executed nationwide.

“What’s in store for Andrea is a tremendous amount of psychological and probably even physical abuse from the other inmates–unbelievable abuse,” Meyer said, since no one, including prison inmates, likes a mother who kills her kids.

Women, Men Respond Differently to Yates

Lamoreaux, however, believes women have responded sympathetically to Yates.

“Men have a very strong reaction and women have a different one,” she said.

Men, Lamoreaux said, don’t understand how Yates could kill her own children. “Men are like ‘Oh my God. If I was her husband and I came home to that, then I would’ve killed her,'” she said one man told her. But many women identify with Yates: “They see her as someone who could be a sister or a girlfriend.”

The notion of a “maternal instinct” based on unconditional love is a fallacy, argues anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection.” While mothers have a stake in nurturing their children, Hrdy believes that a mother’s devotion is dictated, in part, by a long list of factors including economic circumstances, gender roles and how much support she receives from others.

“Because killing one’s own infant is so abhorrent to us, even less comprehensible to many people than is male brutality toward an unrelated infant, there is a tendency to compartmentalize the mother’s actions as the intentional killing of the infant, and to consider her behavior in isolation from her circumstances, even though they are functionally related,” Hrdy writes.

“When we treat infanticide as an aberration, and as a crime (which, of course, in all modern societies, it is), we are likely to obscure underlying motivations. Many people snatch at implausible straws so as to cling to the conviction that the emotional ambivalence many mothers feel about investing in infants is ‘unnatural,’ and hence very rare and completely separate from more common, or ‘normal,’ maternal emotions,” she writes. “No connections are drawn between the ordinary distancing of a new mother from her infant, on the one hand, and these very extreme failures of maternal bonding that end in tragedy, on the other. Even those who accept that infanticide takes place–among heathens, somewhere else–are often reluctant to accept its natural occurrence among civilized people or Christian people.”

Insanity Law Mirrors View of Infanticide

Texas’s insanity law, used as a defense by attorneys for Yates, reflects the discrepancy Hrdy describes, and is faulty, said Lamoreaux, a defense attorney who has worked on death-penalty cases for 11 years.

She said the Texas law’s requirement that to use insanity as a defense, it must be proved that the defendant’s could not distinguish between right and wrong. That legal standard “is a black and white notion and it doesn’t really comport with our modern notions of mental illness,” she said. “The law is very narrow here.”

Insanity-defense laws vary by state. New York, for example, has an added requirement in its law that defendants must be shown to lack substantial capacity to know the nature or consequence of their actions.

“The [life] sentence was entirely appropriate given the evidence of her mental illness, but it is certainly difficult to be happy that this woman has been sent to 40 years in prison and will most likely die in prison,” Lamoreaux said.

Julie Ostrowski is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

“Mothers Who Kill Their Children:
Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the ‘Prom Mom'”
Cheryl L. Meyer, Michelle Oberman, Kelly White:

“A conversation with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of
‘Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection'”:

Also see Women’s Enews, June 27, 2001:
“Mothers Who Kill Often Give Warnings”: