Mercy for mother who dumped baby
A Savai’i mother who dumped her still-born baby in a garbage bin at the Mulifanua wharf has been discharged without conviction.
“This was a human error made in a moment of weakness,” said District Court Judge, Alalatoa Rosella Papali’i on Friday morning.
“This court will take a humanitarian approach to the sentence with the focus being to rehabilitate and curb any further harm to the accused who is also a victim here”.
During sentencing Judge Alalatoa suppressed the identity and personal details of the accused, due to the sensitivity of the matter and a clinical psychologist’s concerns about potential online bullying and its potential harm on her mental health and wellbeing.
The defendant, who is 22, pleaded guilty to concealing the dead body of a baby, an offence which is punishable up to two years in prison.
According to the Police Summary of Facts, the accused was eight months pregnant when she gave birth in the lavatory to a stillborn baby girl.
“She wrapped the baby’s body in clothes and hid her in her suitcase,” the facts state.
“The next morning, the accused attended her training at Leulumoega Hospital whilst the baby was still in her suitcase at home. When she returned home, she prepared to return to where her parents reside to spend the weekend there.
“The next day she took out the body of her baby from the suitcase and placed it in her school bag and took it with her. She then caught the bus to Mulifanua to catch the last ferry to Savaii.
“Whilst at the wharf she saw a rubbish bin and she thought of throwing her baby’s body in there. She then walked towards the rubbish bin and placed her wrapped stillborn baby in there and boarded the 4pm ferry. She did not tell anyone about this,” the Judge noted during sentencing.
The cleaners found the baby in the same rubbish bin and alerted police who immediately commenced investigations.
Judge Alalatoa said the defendant recalled being confused and uncertain about what to do.
“She saw the rubbish bin and placed the body of the baby in there and boarded the ferry. She could not live with this secret so she eventually told her parents leading to these charges,” the Judge said.
The accused only told her parents of the incident 14 days after it happened.
“And having finally disclosed to her parents what she did, the father of the accused accompanied her to the Police Station in Apia where she was interviewed, cautioned and charged accordingly,” she said.
The court noted the post mortem conducted by the pathologist concluded that the cause of death was undetermined but consistent with a stillbirth.
The prosecution initially recommended a community sentence and supervision upon conviction, however, when the defence sought a discharge without conviction, the prosecution took a “neutral stance”.
Prior to sentencing, the prosecution sought an adjournment to file more documents, with the possibility of changing their position again.
But Judge Alalatoa denied the application, noting that 10 months since this matter was before the court and that any further delays would not be in the interest of justice.
Regarding the gravity of the offence, the Judge deduced the accused’s mixed emotions from giving birth (and fatigue) up to the point of disposal of the body of her baby in the rubbish bin and even after.
“The fact she was indecisive and spontaneously disposed of the body shows this. She could have easily buried the baby [...] or got rid of it [... in such a way that] nobody knew about it,” she said.
“But I infer from her actions that she had intended all along on taking [the] baby to Savaii. But the move to dispose of her was last minute, spontaneous, not premeditated and a result of part and parcel of emotional turmoil and trauma.”
The Judge noted that given the relevant circumstances of the offending, including the aggravating and mitigating factors, the gravity of the offending was on the lowest end of the scale.
Judge Alalatoa also noted this was a one-off incident.
“I have no doubt this has been a tremendous learning [experience] for her and one she will not repeat,” she said.
“I have searched for comparable cases but there are none. The incident here is most unfortunate and one that is not premeditated.”
The Judge noted a number of relevant issues relevant to expectations to uphold family reputations and this young woman to deal with public stigma.
“It is quite a sad state of affair however, for this young woman to suffer the way she has and to go through such a traumatising experience on her own. The decisions she made thereafter involving disposing the baby to conceal her body was in my view her desperate response to the combination of pulling factors described above,” she said.
“Her emotional trauma and turmoil, distress and desolation took over her good senses.
“As a young mother she was exposed to the loss [and] stillbirth of her child and it is fair to say her coping mechanisms [involved her] completely [shutting] down. By the end of the day she was like a zombie and not thinking straight.”
The Judge said that women caught in this type of situation in Samoa require all the help and support from those closest to them and our community not to be ostracised.
“It must be remembered that mental health and wellbeing of young mothers come in all degrees,” the Judge said.
She said a starting place to better handle such incidents was the open discussion of sensitive issues among families.
The Judge said it was important for parents to assure young daughters and mothers to share without fear of repercussions and to freely reach out for help.
“This is not to say that the court or the community should condone what the accused did as it is morally and legally wrong on all fronts. But this case is exceptional, requiring this Court to step back and take a different approach,” the Judge said.
The Judge said the offending was a reminder that we are not at all perfect and that as humans we make mistakes that will be deeply regretted albeit too late:
“This case is unique in its own peculiar facts and will be treated as such. In my respectful view, the accused has suffered enough privately and publicly. She will forever live with the guilt of what she did. In that sense, justice is served."