When Mothers Kill

06/02/2015 12:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Females Behaving Ghastly

I've always been fascinated with female criminals. Being a goody-two-shoes, the idea of a woman being ghastly was something worth investigating. My job as a news reporter put me in the perfect position to get my hands dirty; I was never going to join the ranks of these ladies, but at least I could write about them.

Women are supposed to be law-abiding, loving, nurturing -- not crazy, gun-toting or knife-wielding killers. While it's no surprise some women can behave as badly as men, when a woman is found guilty of a dreadful crime, it's easier for society to accept it by saying, "Well, she must be crazy," -- even if the woman is found to be perfectly sane. A male offender is more likely to be seen as bad, while a woman committing the same crime is usually written off as being mad.

Homicidal Mothers

Australian abattoir worker Katherine Knight, who brutally slaughtered and skinned her partner in 2000, was found to have borderline personality disorder. Even though psychiatrists claimed she was not insane, the fact she had a personality disorder meant we could almost shrug off her dreadful deed by reassuring ourselves that she was not "normal."

But it's a different story when a mother is found guilty of killing her child. Shouldn't mothers be dying for their kids, not hurting them? A mother killing their child is the worst of all betrayals and stirs feelings of revulsion -- calling for the perpetrator to be punished severely.

When Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of the murder of three of her children, and the manslaughter of a fourth, there was virtually zero public sympathy. At the time of the deaths, the children were thought to have died from SIDS. But when Folbigg's then-husband discovered her chilling diary entries, the case twisted and turned into a horror story.

9 Nov 1997
I think I handle (Laura's) fits of crying better than I did with Sarah - I've learnt to, once getting to me, to walk away and breathe in for a while myself. It helps me cope and figure out how to help her. With Sarah, all I wanted was for her to shut up. And one day she did.

31 Dec 1997
She's a fairly good natured baby, thank goodness, it will save her from the fate of her siblings. I think she was warned.

Folbigg has maintained her innocence and there are suggestions she may have been wrongly convicted due to claims of inaccurate evidence presented at her trial. But sympathy for her remains extremely low.

Voices in her Head

At a conference in Boston, U.S. criminal psychiatrist Phillip Resnick played the delegates two video confessions of mothers who had killed their children. The first mother spoke matter-of-factly about putting her children in the car and gassing them to death; the second mother spoke about "voices in her head" telling her to drown her children. Psychiatrists at the conference admitted to feeling sympathy for the second mother, but no sympathy for the first.

"If a mother kills her child, it goes against the natural order of life," said Resnick. "We want her to be insane. If she is not insane, the public generally wants to see a life sentence. If a man kills his child, it is still horrific but it isn't viewed with the same horror as when a mother kills."

Criminologists agree that men are more likely to commit murder and be a victim of murder than a woman. Sometimes, when a woman kills, she takes the life of her partner or a child. Presumably most women who kill a partner are responding to violence. But every rule is turned on its head when the killer is the mother and the victim her child.

Keli Lane

When Sydney woman Keli Lane was found guilty in 2013 for the 1996 murder of her baby Tegan, many people felt she got her just desserts. She hid multiple pregnancies and births from friends, boyfriends and family.

Her first and third babies were legally adopted out amid great secrecy but her second baby, Tegan, vanished. Lane said she gave Tegan to the baby's father, Andrew Morris (or Norris -- she originally gave both names to police), but neither he nor Tegan has ever been found.

It remains Australia's biggest-ever manhunt. It is also one of Australia's most puzzling cases -- Tegan's body has never been found and Keli continues to maintain her innocence. But if the biological father really did take baby Tegan, surely he would have stepped forward, fifteen years later, to save Keli from a 13-year prison sentence?

Hours after giving birth to Tegan, Keli attended a friend's wedding. Nobody -- not her boyfriend, nor her family, knew Keli was pregnant and it was only when she legally adopted out her next baby that it was discovered she had given birth to a daughter who left hospital that day with Keli and was never seen again. Sadly, the only person who really knows what happened the day of Tegan's birth is Keli and she might very well take her secret to her grave.

So did Keli Lane kill her daughter, as the jury believed, or not? As a journalist and a mother, sometimes I find stories behind stories fall into my lap. A chance meeting with a friend of Keli's, in the weeks leading up to her Sydney trial, made me believe she was innocent. Or did I just fall into the category of those who would rather believe anything than think a mother could kill her child?

LJ Charleston is a journalist, crime reporter and author of Fatal Females:13 crimes that gripped a nation.