She was 15 years old when she discovered she was pregnant – at the moment when the baby “fell out of her” onto the floor, hitting its head. She had convinced herself she wasn’t pregnant because she didn’t want to believe it. She was scared, confused, frightened. She didn’t want her parents to be disappointed in her. She told the Crown Court she believed the baby’s injuries were caused by him falling to the floor and hitting his head when she gave birth. She said she didn’t remember what happened after that, but she was trying to help him. His skull was fractured. She thought he was dead because he was not moving or breathing, but then she discovered he was still breathing. She claimed she put cotton wool in his mouth to soak up some leaking “fluid” or blood. The news reports described this as stuffing cotton wool down his throat to stop him breathing. His body was discovered in a bin bag outside the family home the following day.
It was four years between the birth and her trial. At age 19, it seems she was tried as an adult, though when it happened she was a child. At least one news source accused her of assaulting the baby. She denied that and denied murdering him. When asked by her older sister why she hadn’t told anyone about the birth, Mayo replied: “Sometimes you just don’t think, do you? I was scared.” She told the court she was panicking. She is quoted as saying: “I didn’t want anyone to throw him away, I just wanted someone else to deal with it.” Yet she was accused, apparently by at least one prosecution witness, of crushing the baby’s head with her foot, on the basis of what evidence is not clear.
Her parents were separated and she lived part-time with each of them. Her father died ten days after she lost the baby. He was described as being “emotionally cruel”. Her mother was also described as offering her very little support at the best of times, though she was also quoted as asking her daughter why she didn’t ask her for help.
The news headlines showed little or no sympathy:
- 15-year-old girl killed her newborn baby with cotton wool
- Teenage mother murdered newborn son
- Teen mother found guilty of murdering newborn son at her parents’ home
- Accused mum denies causing newborn’s head injuries
The defence barrister’s witnesses got almost no space in the media reports, while the views of the prosecution witnesses were aired repeatedly.
The trial lasted six weeks. The judge said there was “no evidence to support a conclusion that the baby was conscious between the injury to his skull and his death”. He urged the jury not to “rush into a verdict”, saying: “The people involved in this case deserve your complete attention.” He also said the jury could consider an alternative verdict of infanticide. This was a crucial recommendation. In English and Welsh law: “The Infanticide Act 1922 effectively abolished the death penalty for a woman who deliberately killed her newborn child while the balance of her mind was disturbed as a result of giving birth, by providing a partial defence to murder.” The law was changed again in 1938. A report in the British Journal of Midwifery 2015;23(5) states:
“A verdict of infanticide allows the court to deal with the case as if the woman had been guilty of manslaughter. This gives the courts a wider range of sentencing options than the mandatory life sentence imposed for murder. In practice, a custodial sentence is rare. In R v Sainsbury (1990), a 17-year-old woman (sic) pleaded guilty to infanticide. She had become pregnant at 14 and had not told anyone. She had given birth unaided in a bathroom and taken the baby, wrapped it in a blanket and placed it in a river. The judge sentencing her said that he accepted that she was very immature and greatly disturbed by the effect of giving birth, but said that her responsibility was not removed altogether so sentenced her to 12 months’ detention in a young offenders’ institution.
“The Court of Appeal held that in the previous 10 years, not one of the 59 cases of infanticide had resulted in a custodial sentence. There was nothing to take this case out of the ordinary pattern of those offences. The judge had been wrong to say that the welfare of society demanded a custodial sentence; the mitigating factors were overwhelming and a probation order replaced the prison term.
“While the law in England and Wales seeks to punish women who unlawfully terminate their pregnancy or kill their young infant child, the availability of the offences of child destruction under the Infant Life Preservation Act (1929) and infanticide under the Infanticide Act (1938) give the courts the opportunity to deal with such cases with compassion and provides judges with a range of sentencing options that rarely involve imprisonment.”
However, the jurors in this current case returned a verdict of murder following more than eight hours of deliberations. The young girl cried in the dock after the jury returned the verdict.
The judge in summing up said this: “I cannot find… that he [the newborn] suffered any prolonged pain as a result of your attacks (sic) on him. Nonetheless, the violence of these two attacks and your determination to ensure Stanley’s death are matters that aggravate the offending. There was a somewhat half-hearted attempt to conceal what you had done and to dispose of the body. The steps you took – wiping up some of the blood, leaving Stanley’s body in a bin bag near the doorway and asking your brother to put it in the bin when he got up the following morning, suggest there was no real forethought or planning as to what you would need to do to hide what you had done. You are far from stupid or uneducated and if you really had planned in advance to kill your child and conceal the evidence of that crime, there were obvious steps you could have taken.
“I accept the prosecution’s submissions that, on any view, you knew you were pregnant and about to give birth an hour or so before you did so. At that time there is no question of the balance of your mind being disturbed by pregnancy denial or any other condition. You could have asked your mother for help or rung the emergency services. Whilst there might have been grounds for doubting how your mother would have coped, that cannot be said of the emergency services. I am accordingly driven to the conclusion that at that stage at least you had decided you would have to kill your baby.”
“You knew there were alternatives to giving birth and bringing up a child, namely abortion or adoption. You were, however, a rather pathetic (in the true sense of that word) 15-year-old girl, faced with a problem of such appalling dimensions and consequences, as you saw them to be, that you could not see through it, and so resorted to a process of denial during much of your pregnancy. But by the evening of March 23 you knew what was happening to your body and in those last minutes you decided that you had to get rid of this baby. To that extent this was a pre-meditated killing.”
Where has the compassion recommended in the law since 1938 gone in England?
SOURCES: BBC, 13 June 2023 ; Guardian, 11 May 2023 ; Sky News, 23 June 2023 ; The Forester, 22 June 2023 ; Ledbury Reporter, 28 June 2023 ; VISUAL IMAGE: Getty Images/Stockphoto in Counsel Magazine, December 2022