Murder or infanticide? Understanding the causes behind the most shocking of crimes

Rachel Tunstill, 26, killed Mia Kelly soon after giving birth to her in the bathroom of her flat in Burnley, Lancashire, in January 2017. Lancashire Police

The murder of newborn baby Mia Kelly by her mother, Rachel Tunstill, was branded “horrific, callous and brutal” by police in Lancashire. Tunstill was sentenced to life imprisonment – with a minimum term of 20 years – after a jury found her guilty of murder.

The judge, Mr Justice Davis, said there was “no way of knowing” why this “dreadful crime” happened. But I believe the courts do not yet fully understand the mental trauma which, according to my research, appears in so many of these disturbing cases.

Tunstill’s trial was told how her pregnancy ended with her delivering the baby on her own, into a toilet. She then asked her boyfriend, who was in the next room, to pass her a pair of scissors, which she then used to stab the child to death. While no accurate figures exist as to the number of cases each year, from my research I estimate that in England and Wales around seven cases are investigated by the authorities each year – although very few result in homicide convictions.

Neonaticide is mostly committed by women following a pregnancy that has been concealed or denied from the wider world. Much of the research identifies the stereotypical neonaticidal woman as young, single and poor. They often lack the economic, social and emotional resources to deal with the pregnancy. Yet other research has shown that some come from across demographics.

What is evident from studies considering the motivation of women who have killed their newborn child is that they are vulnerable. Fear and shame of the pregnancy is common, as is the belief that the pregnancy cannot exist – which leads women to hide their condition from the world. Consequently, they are left with few choices but to give birth in secret, often in extreme panic.

What is unusual about Tunstill’s case is her conviction for murder and the subsequent life sentence she received. From my research into cases of suspected neonaticide in England and Wales from 2010 to 2014, I have found that no woman has been imprisoned for killing her newborn child since at least 2002 (when my inquiry ends). All cases of a similar nature to Tunstill’s have resulted in a conviction for infanticide or manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.

Each of these convictions have resulted in a community sentence or a hospital order – such as the case of Gintare Suminaite who killed her daughter shortly after giving birth in the bathroom of her West Sussex home. Her baby was the result of a secret affair and she kept her pregnancy hidden, the Old Bailey heard. Suminaite, of Bognor Regis, denied murder but admitted infanticide as she was mentally disturbed by giving birth. The judge said her circumstances were “tragic” and sentenced her to a 24-month community order.

It is beyond the scope of this article to examine why Tunstill was not convicted of either infanticide or manslaughter. Nevertheless, it would seem her case holds similarities to those that have resulted in an infanticide conviction. The Infanticide Act 1938 states that women who kill their own children within a year of life can be punished as if guilty of manslaughter – if at the time of the act “the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child”.

The offence was introduced in recognition of the socioeconomic “stressors” that could lead unmarried women to kill their illegitimate newborn children out of the shame of being pregnant out of wedlock, offering leniency in such cases. Contemporary use of the offence provides for lenient treatment for women who appear to have been suffering the mental disturbance that is widely associated with neonaticide.

Disturbance of mind

Previous studies into the mental condition of women who kill their newborn children have reported that such women respond not callously and purposefully for self-preservation but out of fear associated with shame and guilt of being pregnant and concern about the reaction of parents, partners and others if the pregnancy is discovered.

Psychiatric interviews conducted with defendants in the US by Margaret Spinelli concluded that the women suffered dissociative psychosis and hallucinations and intermittent amnesia. The women then awoke to find a dead newborn child whose presence they could not explain. Tunstill, while accepting that she must have killed the child, said she had no memory of her fatal act. The psychiatrist acting for her told the court that she was suffering an acute stress reaction, which came against a background of mental disorder, including depression and Asperger’s Syndrome. Such evidence would suggest that the mental requirements for the offence of infanticide had been met.

Women who commit neonaticide are, by the nature of the circumstances of the pregnancy and birth, vulnerable. I have previously argued that the courts need to better understand the social context of a woman’s life that leads her to conceal or deny a pregnancy. It would appear from Tunstill’s sentencing that a much better contextual understanding of these cases is still required in court.

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