Is it murder when child dies home alone?

Pat Murphy, The Daily Record Newswire

Few would argue that some form of crime has been committed when a young child dies in a home fire after being left unattended by a mother who is off drinking with friends.

But is it murder?

If the answer to that question is “yes,” then it means a life sentence for one Louisiana woman.

Fortunately for Satonia Small, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently answered that question in the negative, overturning her second degree murder conviction for the death of her six-year-old daughter in 2008.

“[W]e find that a conviction for second degree murder cannot be supported in this case, where defendant’s criminally negligent act of leaving her young children alone in the middle of the night was not a ‘direct act’ of killing, but was instead a criminally negligent act of lack of supervision which resulted in her child’s death,” wrote Associate Justice Jeffery P. Victory in last month’s decision in State v. Small.

One expert who agreed with the court’s decision is Professor Ken Levy of the Louisiana State University Law Center.

“In my eyes, given that Small was criminally negligent, her criminal act is more appropriately labeled as negligent homicide than as murder,” Levy wrote in an e-mail.

The tragic facts of the case are simple enough. Around 10 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2008, Small left her Shreveport apartment to go drinking at the home of her friend, Patrina Gay. Small failed to arrange for anyone to babysit her six-year old daughter and seven-year-old son, who were asleep in bed.
Sometime later that evening, a fire started on the stove top in the kitchen. Firefighters arrived at the scene around midnight and found that Small’s son had escaped the blaze by jumping out the window. Firefighters found Small’s daughter in a bedroom, unconscious from smoke inhalation. Efforts to revive the little girl failed and doctors declared her brain dead five days later.

A fire investigator would testify that stove top fires of the sort that occurred in Small’s apartment are slow-developing, the implication being her children would have had plenty of time to escape unharmed had an adult been around to look after them.

Police originally arrested Small for the offense of cruelty to juveniles, but a grand jury eventually indicted the woman for second degree murder.
Why the murder charge instead of some lesser offense?

While I see this as a clear case of over-prosecution, the murder charge is easier to understand when you know that in 2007 Small pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal abandonment after a neighbor reported to police that her children had been left alone outside in inclement weather.

Moreover, in connection with that 2007 conviction, Small promised the court she would never abandon her children again, a promise she obviously failed to keep.

So you can see why prosecutors were motivated to go for the murder conviction.

Small was charged under the provision of the state’s homicide statute which incorporates felony murder, the underlying felony in her case being cruelty to juveniles. In 2010, a Louisiana jury found Small guilty of second degree murder and the trial court sentenced her to life imprisonment.
Small argued on appeal her murder conviction could not stand because her daughter died from an intervening circumstance — the accidental fire — rather than directly from her own action in leaving her children unsupervised.

The state supreme court proved open to this argument because in previous cases it had interpreted the felony murder rule to require that a direct act of a defendant or his accomplice cause the death of the victim.

In reversing the lower court in Small’s case, Justice Victory explained “neglect takes many forms, and neglect in the form of lack of supervision simply cannot supply the direct act of killing needed for a second degree felony murder conviction.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean Small goes unpunished. The state high court found that the evidence fully supported a conviction for the lesser included offense of negligent homicide, which carries a penalty of up to five years.

Professor Levy said that the court’s decision brought Small’s case into the “mainstream,” although he noted a handful of decisions from other states in which second degree murder convictions had been upheld in similar situations.

Society rightly condemns Small for failing to protect her children, but prosecutors went too far when they convicted her for murder. If the woman has a soul, she must be haunted on a daily basis with the knowledge of her little girl’s death. To most parents, that would be a crueler punishment than any meted out by the state.


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