The Mary Barnett Case

On 23rd January, Mary Barnett, the Chicago-based single mother of the 6 months old baby Alison, suddenly left for San Francisco to meet her fiancé. The baby, having been left unattended was found dead in Barnett’s apartment a week later.  That a mother could leave such a young baby unattended for several days is shocking, despairing and anger-invoking. The slow and painful death of the innocent baby makes understandable such reactions from people, especially the prosecutors, who have charged Ms. Barnett with second degree murder (intentional murder without premeditation).  Upon succeeding in proving this charge the guilty could face up to 18 years in prison.  As I am one of the jury members, I will evaluate the arguments of the lawyers and witnesses from the prosecution and defense sides.  Based on the strength of their arguments I will arrive at the most appropriate judgment for this case.

Caroline Hospers, who is Mary Barnett’s neighbor was the first witness called up by the prosecution. Having known Ms. Barnett for a while, she is able to give an insight into the lifestyle and character of the latter.  And she is highly critical in both counts. She thinks of Ms. Barnett as a ‘disgrace’ for the reason that she does not have a husband and parties and sleeps around with men.  She also thinks poorly of Ms. Barnett’s addiction to alcohol. In my view, the private life and sexual habits of Ms. Barnett does not have a great bearing on the case. But her addiction to alcohol can come in the way of caring for a baby.  Again, her alcoholism does not automatically validate the ‘second-degree murder’ charge, but makes ‘parental negligence’ a more valid claim. Though Hospers is a key witness, the evidence provided by her is circumstantial and deductive, whereas more concrete direct evidence would be required to pronounce Barnett guilty.

Policeman A was the next witness called upon by the prosecution.  The policeman’s observations of Ms. Barnett happened immediately after the baby was found dead (on January 30), hence making his role important to the trial.  This is especially so since he recounts details of the scene and the oral statements given by Ms. Barnett, the latter giving us a peek into her disturbed psychological state – both before and after the event. For example, Policeman A produces the following statement given by Ms. Barnett in the scene of the tragedy:  “I remember making airline reservations for my trip.  Then I tried to find a baby sitter, but I couldn’t.  I knew that I was leaving Alison alone and that I wouldn’t be coming back for a while, but I had to get to California at all costs I visited my mother and then left.” The high state of apathy and confusion, and a total lack of maternal instinct in Ms. Barnett’s disturbed psyche is evident from this statement. This recorded statement suggests that the death of the baby is more an act of ‘grave parental negligence’ than ‘intentional murder’.

Dr. Parker is a professional psychiatrist who “has been involved in many judicial hearings on whether a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial and is familiar with these legal tests”.  Hence, his interviews with Ms. Barnett are key to the trial.  His general assessment is that Ms. Barnett’s apparent confused and disturbed state of psychology largely developed ‘after’ January 30 when she discovered the dead baby. Presently, her mental disturbance is more a product of deep guilt and shame that have arisen due to her highly irresponsible behavior and less a product of deep-rooted malady.  Hence, Dr. Parker’s professional view suggests that Ms. Barnett is certainly ‘guilty’. But the exact measure of her guilt is what I need to infer.

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