FILICIDE: Australia: Kristi Anne Abrahams: Editorial viewpoint
Society must not resort to vigilante justice
A memorial for Kiesha Abrahams in Minchinbury, Western Sydney. Photo: Janie Barrett
The judge who sentenced Kristi Anne Abrahams to a minimum 15 years' jail for murdering her daughter Kiesha says ''retribution and mercy are important in equal measure''. Many Australians disagree. They believe justice should tilt the balance towards revenge for Kiesha and against her mother's excuses.
They are outraged that any mother could kill her child, hide and destroy the body, deny the crime for months then still be afforded the benefit of the doubt for a sad upbringing, low IQ and guilty plea.
He found she would be rehabilitated, even though her IQ is 68.
Many want a scapegoat - be it Abrahams, the welfare department or the judge who delivered what seems a comparatively light sentence. They want to feel less guilty about the failure of the community to protect its most vulnerable.
Such heightened emotions are understandable. They also risk being counter-productive and erosive. Any response to the sentence must focus on the reasoning of the judge, not public outrage.
When revenge becomes the main driver of punishment decisions, how much revenge is enough?
Nothing can ever avenge a child's murder: not the death penalty; not a set 25-year non-parole period; not solitary confinement for punishment or self-protection; not ''rotting in hell'' as Kiesha's supporters yelled; and not taking every child who may be at risk from their home on the off chance that a ''mad'' or ''bad'' mother might snap.
Yes, governments must strengthen processes to protect children and identify risks. An independent review of departmental procedures in this case and others is a good way to calm and reassure those baying for blood.
But after the Kiesha case - and Keli Lane's appeal on Tuesday against her minimum sentence of 13 years and five months for murdering baby Tegan - Australians should pause for thought. Do we want to a society built on treating each case on its merits and a belief each person has a potential for good? Or do we want an unforgiving, aggressive society that brands individuals - even whole groups of people - as beyond redemption?
Cases of filicide involve a breach of sacred trust, especially when the mother is the offender. Angry onlookers, egged on by the media and well-intentioned protectors of children, judge murdering mothers more harshly than they do murdering fathers. Mothers are, in a way, the last bastion of civilisation against primal disorder.
When mums fall short, they are sometimes branded ''mad'', with a limited number of excuses tolerated to mitigate their misdeeds. More often, though, murdering mothers are judged ''bad'', tantamount to evil and not worthy of leniency.
In analysing the fall from grace of two American mothers who murdered, Jayne Huckerby, who was Sydney-bred but is now a professor at Duke University in the US, says the definition of a ''bad'' mother appears to be met if she does not fit the ''ideal norms of motherhood'' and is "depraved … ruthless, selfish, cold, callous, neglectful of [her] children or domestic responsibilities, violent or promiscuous".
For many, the ''bad'' mother brand offers easy justification for gut instincts of revenge and generalisations about race and class. The ''bad'' mother, under this world view, has no desire to know better and should get what she deserves.
Of course in the public mind, she is rarely punished enough. It can be even more galling when a ''bad'' mother comes from a well-off background; she ''should have known better'' but chose not to.
When the public rushes to judgment, a convicted Keli Lane or even a wrongly accused Lindy Chamberlain might be judged more harshly than others. The public's ''bad'' mother response is notable for rejecting or playing down the role of personal circumstances. It pays little heed to a murderer's history as a victim of abuse, as Kristi Anne Abrahams was. Nor does it concede the associated low self-esteem, poor impulse control, substance abuse and, crucially, a tendency for these women to destroy the one thing over which they have control, their child.
Kiesha supporter and former Abrahams friend Alison Anderson wants none of those excuses. ''Does having a bad upbringing and abuse give you the right to go and take people's lives?'' Anderson said after the sentencing. ''She knew what she was doing. It's just a copout. Kiesha was killed by a cold-blooded murderer.''
By contrast, the judge said Abrahams was ''an inevitable product of entrenched intergenerational failures. As anyone knows, the burdensome responsibilities of parenthood are not bestowed only upon those who are capable of meeting them … [Her] failings are mirrored in the failings of others.''
In Huckerby terms, there were two public verdicts: the majority that Abrahams was a ''bad'' mother and the minority that she was ''mad''. The judge placed himself towards the minority.
He insisted Abrahams was entitled to be sentenced ''dispassionately with regard both to the objective circumstances of her crimes and the subjective considerations at play''. He said sentencing should never be decided with regard to ''the often vile obscene, ill-informed and plainly irrelevant outbursts that have characterised so many of the anonymous and unaccountable opinions publicly at large and accessible in this case''.
Without the cross-examination that would emerge from a trial, he could not decide beyond reasonable doubt that Abrahams had intended to kill Kiesha. Thus, he found Kiesha's was a mid-ranking murder in terms of seriousness and worthy of a lighter sentence. Likewise, he found a ''total absence of any reasonable explanation of what happened'' and that no motive had been emerged.
He expressly disregarded Abrahams' uncharged acts of violence against Kiesha before the murder, rejected some evidence about the number of blows she received and played down the fraught relationships.
The judge saw no need for specific deterrence, saying Abrahams was ''never likely to reoffend'' and did not consider her a good case for general deterrence due to her subjective circumstances. He found Abrahams would be rehabilitated, even though her IQ is 68 and she will probably be jailed among hardened criminals out to get her.
He found Abrahams remorseful, even though she did not give evidence before him. There are questions about some of the conclusions on which the judge relied in sentencing.
But there is nothing to be gained from vilification and revenge of individuals, let alone classes of people.
The mark of a civilised society is how it deals with shocking crimes without resort to knee-jerk reactions and vigilante justice.
Where deterrence can be effective, sentencing must reflect that. But there should always be recognition that most people are capable of redemption when given the chance.