The worst murder of all

by David Staples

In the days and weeks after the controversial verdict in the Katrina Effert case, I found myself arguing constantly about the jury’s decision with my friend and Edmonton Journal colleague Paula Simons. 

Briefly, a small-town jury in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, found 20-year-old Effert guilty of second-degree murder for strangling her newborn son with her thong underwear.  Soon, a debate raged across Canada about the fairness of the verdict.  Effert’s life sentence with no parole for 10 years (the mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree murder) was unprecedented in Canada for this type of crime.  Because of a legal provision enacted in 1948, the crime had a different status, and no Canadian woman had gone to jail for more than a year for killing her child.  Usually, convicted mothers got no jail time.

Lawyers, pundits, politicians and citizens all weighed in on the Effert verdict, many of them saying it was appalling, unjust and out-of-step with jurisprudence. My colleague Paula Simons held that position. Others, including me, believed that the jury rightly found Effert guilty of murder.

As Paula and I argued and as comments from experts and the public filled the paper, it occurred to me that most people, including me, didn’t know what the hell we were talking about. We had strong gut feelings but really knew little about Canada’s infanticide law or about infanticide’s social history. To move the debate forward and to sort out the history, I began digging into it.  Thankfully, my editors gave me the necessary time to do it.

To do a proper job, I realized I would not only have to talk to top Canadian experts but to international experts as well. However, not being with the New York Times or some large Toronto paper, I found it sometimes difficult to get top experts to call me back.  If and when they did, I was ready.

My strategy here was to be as prepared as possible before I approached an expert.  First, I went to the library and checked out and read half-dozen books on infanticide. I also made sure to read at least an article or two either by or about each expert that I planned to interview. If possible, I tried to read their main book on the subject. I ordered a number of books to complete this part of my research, and the process took several weeks.  So, by the time I made the first “expert” contact, I could portray myself, with a few sentences, as a person who adequately grasped the main issues. 

The research also gave me the knowledge to by-pass the basic information that an expert would have to explain, so that we could explore deeper areas of controversy and uncertainty. In addition, because experts can have strong political agendas, knowing their work gave me an edge so that I wouldn’t get bowled over by their rhetoric or vastly superior knowledge of the topic.

I tracked down the world’s leading experts on the issue, including two top researchers in Australia and discovered that the statute of infanticide has long been controversial. In Canada, the legal community has debated the merits of the law since its inception in 1948. Many academic, medical and legal experts believe that the law was based on discredited science and an outdated notion that women are frail, irrational creatures, especially during pregnancy and lactation.

I also found that, while many critics deemed Effert’s sentence a radical departure, it is part of a trend that indicated many jurors and courts put a newborn’s life ahead of any sympathy for mothers who kill their babies. This changing attitude has arisen from decades of progressive social change that improved the lives of single mothers, stripping away issues of poverty and shame that, in the past, might have justified infanticide to many people. Certainly, Canadians courts in the 1990s reflected this shift, and prosecutors are taking a more punitive stance against women who killed their infants, charging them with murder and manslaughter, rather than the crime of infanticide.

In the end, I came to understand the context of the Effert verdict and was able to explain it to the Journal’s readers.  While the explanation may have failed to ease the outrage of many critics over the verdict, I think it informed readers, making it less of an emotional debate.

By the way, both Paula Simons and I won National Newspaper Award Certificates of Merit for our work on the Effert case — she for column writing, me for explanatory journalism — which proves you should never shy away from writing about the issues that elicit passion, make your blood boil and send your brain into overdrive.

Read “Revisiting Canada’s infanticide law