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The Ontario Court of Appeal recently released a decision that dealt with the offence, and the partial defence, of infanticide. Infanticide has been part of the criminal law of Canada for over 60 years but no appellate court in Canada had ever before reviewed the infanticide provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada.
In the case of R. v. L.B., the Crown Prosecutor argued on appeal that a strict interpretation of the wording of the Criminal Code section creating the offence of infanticide did not allow for the use of infanticide as a partial defence to a charge of murder. The question before the Court was: is infanticide both an offence and a partial defence to a murder charge, or is it exclusively an offence that may, in some cases, be an included (and lesser*)offence in a charge of murder to be considered if, and only if, the Crown fails to prove murder?
As we recently discussed with regard to the defence of provocation, the partial defence of infanticide to murder has its roots in English law. Like the defence of provocation, the offence of infanticide was created because English juries had a strong aversion to convicting mothers who killed their newborn babies of murder, for which, under the law at the time, they would face the death penalty. The English Infanticide Act, 1922 set out a connection between mothers who kill their newborns and mental disturbance attributed to giving birth. It provided that mothers convicted under this Act should receive a sentence that would be the same as if the conviction was for manslaughter, thus circumventing the death penalty.
Canada enacted its first infanticide law in 1948. As the Ontario Court of Appeal noted: “Like their English counterparts, Canadian juries were reluctant to brand mothers as murderers, many of whom were very young, emotionally distraught, and in dire social and economic circumstances at the time of the homicide. As in the United Kingdom, the death penalty was mandatory for all murders in Canada in 1948.”
Like the English law, the Canadian law tied the offence of infanticide to an imbalance of the mother’s mind because of giving birth. However, unlike the English law, the Canadian statute did not require that the sentence be the same as for manslaughter. Instead, it set out a maximum penalty of three years. The Ontario Court of Appeal decided that the wording of the 1948 Act made infanticide not only a stand-alone offence, but also a partial defence to a murder charge. In other words, if an act of culpable homicide (murder) fell within the definition of infanticide, it was deemed not to be murder or manslaughter, but was deemed to be the offence of infanticide.
However, in 1954 a number of amendments were made to the offence of infanticide in a comprehensive overhaul of the Criminal Code . The changes included:
- increasing the penalty from three to five years;
- the removal of the words: “shall be deemed not to have committed murder or manslaughter”;
- defining “newly born child” as a child under one year of age;
- adding breast-feeding as a second source of mental disturbance that could support the offence of infanticide.
The most important of these amendments, and the one that led to this court challenge by the Crown, was that the new definition of infanticide removed the phrase “shall be deemed not to have committed murder or manslaughter”. Its removal prompted the Appeal Court to ask whether the amendments of 1954 meant that Parliament at that time intended to remove infanticide as a partial defence to murder (even though it did not specifically say that).
Justice Doherty, writing the decision for the Appeal panel, noted that the panel had reviewed the parliamentary debates when the amendments were introduced, as well as secondary sources such as the Introduction to that year’s Criminal Code. He further noted that the creation of infanticide happened in 1948, only six years before the amendments. He concluded: “The 1953-54 Criminal Code did not alter the tripartite division of culpable homicide into murder, manslaughter and infanticide created by the infanticide amendments in 1948. …Treating infanticide as a partial defence to murder is consistent with the distinction drawn between infanticide and murder by Parliament. It allows juries to draw that distinction in cases where mothers are charged with murdering their children and evidence brings the homicide within the very narrow factual confines of infanticide. Eliminating infanticide as a partial defence effectively allows the Crown to remove the distinction between infanticide and murder through the exercise of its charging discretion.”
The Court ruled: “Infanticide was initially, and still is, both a stand alone indictable offence and a partial defence to a charge of murder”.
Cases of infanticide are rare in Canada. However, shortly after the Ontario decision in R. v. L.B., the Alberta Court of Appeal dealt with an appeal of a conviction of a young mother for second-degree murder. In the case of R. v. Effert, 2011 ABCA 143, the Alberta Court referred to the Ontario decision, and quoted it with approval. It stated: “Infanticide is a partial defence to murder, and where the facts support both a conviction for murder and infanticide, the jury should be instructed to enter a verdict of guilty of infanticide: R.v. L.B, 2011 ONCA 153 at paras.97-9. The burden is on the Crown to prove that the partial defence of infanticide does not apply; to obtain a conviction for murder, the Crown must prove that there is no reasonable doubt that the accused did not kill the child ‘by reason of her mind being disturbed.’”
In the Alberta case, a jury had found the mother guilty of second-degree murder. The Alberta Court of Appeal took the unusual step of overturning a jury verdict. It noted that the jury chose to disregard the evidence of two psychiatrists about the state of mind of the mother. The Appeal Court ruled that even if the jury had doubts about the experts’ testimony, it should have been left with at least a reasonable doubt about the state of the mother’s mind. The Court wrote: “Viewing the matter ‘through the lens of judicial experience’ it is impossible to say that there was not at least a reasonable doubt present on this record. That conclusion would mean the jury found the opinions of both experts were so seriously flawed that they should be given virtually no weight at all.”
The Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the verdict of second-degree murder and replaced it with a conviction of infanticide.
* A lesser offence is one that is a part of a major offence that is charged against a person, but which lacks an essential element of the major offence. For example, manslaughter and infanticide are lesser offences in relation to murder.