"Case of Babies' Killer is Like None Other"
Noe's sentence seems lenient, but it could lead to a better understanding of infanticide
from the July 9, 1999 Los Angeles Times op-ed page


Philadelphia investigators have been waiting for decades to hear Marie Noe
get up in open court and admit that she smothered eight of her babies back in
the '40s, '50s and '60s. But since the 70-year-old woman made that startling
public confession in a small courtroom --pleading guilty to eight counts of
second-degree murder--while her 77-year-old husband, Arthur, wept in the
gallery, there has been a torrent of international criticism of the plea bargain
that led to it.

What most people have heard about her sentence is this: For killing eight
children, Marie Noe got 20 years' probation, the first five to be served under
house arrest. Given such limited information, the public outcry is predictable.
After all, what kind of message does a big-city D.A. send by letting the
perpetrator in the largest case of maternal infanticide in American history walk
without jail time, when so many one-time murderers sit on death row?

But it's a mistake to compare the Noe situation to a standard capital murder
case, or pass judgment based only on the sound bite. The case against Marie Noe
sat dormant for 30 years because suspicious medical examiner investigators were
unable to persuade police to move forward in what would have been, given the
science of the day, an extremely risky prosecution with no physical evidence.

There are really only two or three cases even remotely like this one: The
best known are Waneta Hoyt in Syracuse and Mary Beth Tinning in Schenectady,
both of which were multiple infant deaths initially attributed to sudden infant
death syndrome but later revealed as murders. Both mothers forced prosecutors
into long, painful, expensive circus trials, and both ended up spending the rest

Los Angeles Times July 9, 1999, Friday,

of their lives in prison. But the Hoyt and Tinning children died in the '70s and
'80; Marie Noe's first child was smothered in 1949. And neither Hoyt nor Tinning
had been so extensively investigated--and exonerated--at the time of the
children's deaths. A trial for Marie Noe was by no means a slam dunk; it could
have been a debacle.

Even more important to consider, though, is the third part of the Noe plea
bargain, which so far has received little attention even though it could turn
out to be the most controversial and dramatic aspect of the sentence. In
exchange for her plea, Marie Noe agreed to be extensively examined by
court-appointed psychiatric experts, so that her case might promote a better
understanding of infanticide and the post-partum illnesses that appear to have
contributed to the murders. The money that would have been used to prosecute and
jail her is supposed to be used to fund this.

Marie Noe has a long and well-documented history of mental illness, so it
wouldn't have been unusual for a sentence to include some kind of forced
treatment. Instead, she faces this radical alternative, which the district
attorneys admit is unprecedented. Marie has agreed, basically, to become a
real-time teaching case--to donate her brain to science before death--for the
public good.

At the very least, this could put an end to all the current armchair
speculation about what is wrong with her. Some have conjectured she suffers from
Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome, in which a parent repeatedly harms a child to get
attention from medical workers; others have suggested that she suffers from a
dissociative disorder. There has also been a psychoanalytic theory of her
actions, and a neurobiological analysis. Unfortunately, none of these has come
from anyone who has actually interviewed or met Marie Noe face to face.

If Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham and her assistant in charge of this prosecution,
Charles Gallagher, are smart and creative with the resources they claim they
will commit to this research, Marie Noe might be able to shatter some
longstanding psychiatric myths about mothers who kill and actually offer some
constructive treatments. This opportunity could be fumbled, like, say, the case
of Genie, the so-called California "wild child" whose long-term study by
linguists yielded almost nothing. Or the promised study could simply fall
through the cracks like so many post-sentence promises. While Noe would have
gone directly to jail if so sentenced, she did walk out of that courtroom
without any real plan in place for her psychiatric future.

That's why it is important for the public to keep paying attention to the
case. If it isn't honestly carried out, then the Marie Noe sentence really could
become the miscarriage of justice that many already think it is.

All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Fried