Sunday, December 19, 2010

Truth is Sometimes Stranger than Fiction: Case of Infanticide

Keli Lane
Australians seem to specialize in cases involving mothers who kill their children. Remember the sensational 1980s murder trial involving Lindy Chamberlain ("the dingo got my baby" case). The case riveted Australia, and was later made into, A Cry in the Darka film that allowed Meryl Streep to show off her Australian accent. 

While I was in Australia, the biggest news event (other than Oprah's visit) was the Keli Lane murder trial that ended last week. Ms. Lane was convicted of murdering her baby, Tegan Lane, two days after giving birth to her in 1996. The fact that Ms. Lane hid five pregnancies in all -- two aborted, two that proceeded with the babies adopted out, and the baby Tegan -- prompted a public outcry. How could a mother do this? Why didn't she use contraception, have another abortion or give the baby up for adoption? More importantly, where were the authorities that allowed such a thing to happen?

During the 17-week trial, the prosecution argued that Ms. Lane, a former champion water polo player, killed her baby because she did not want the child to get in the way of her Olympic aspirations and active social life. Ms. Lane was a water polo star and was looking for a place on the 2000 Water Polo team. The first thing you learn about Australians is that they're sports fanatics and idolize their sport stars: rugby, soccer, cricket, tennis, golf, surfing, sailing, track and field, and of course swimming.  

Lawyers for Lane said Ms. Lane kept the births secret because of her "shame, embarrassment and humiliation" about her sexual encounters that led to the conceptions and her failure to use adequate contraception. She feared she would lose her friends and family if they found out about her secret pregnancies. Moreover, knowledge of her pregnancies, abortions and adoptions would damage her "star" appeal and potential for endorsements. The defense argued that Ms. Lane may not have had maternal instincts, but she didn't kill her baby, and she shouldn't be convicted for not doing what society deems appropriate. In addition, the defense argued that the baby's body was never found and it was reasonable to assume that Tegan was alive. 

Ms. Lane's secrets were unraveled in 1999 when a social worker learned of Tegan's birth while working on the adoption of Ms. Lane's subsequent child. The social worker became suspicious when he discovered a hospital record indicating that Ms. Lane had given birth to a child in 1996. He tried to investigate the child's life but discovered there was no birth certificate, medical records, nor any other documents to indicate the existence of the child. When he asked Lane about the child, she denied its existence. He ultimately went to the police and reported the child missing.

The police interviewed Lane in 2001, and she told them the baby had been given to the natural father (Mr. Morris or Mr. Norris), a man she said she had a brief and secret affair. She changed her story a number of times during the investigation, but this was the story she used at trial. The prosecution claimed that the named father, Andrew Morris or Andrew Norris, was a fictitious person. In fact, the police spent tens of thousands of hours attempting to trace the whereabouts of Tegan, Mr. Morris or Mr. Norris, but to no avail.

Dominique Cottrez
Was Ms. Lane crazy or just bad? Clearly, Ms. Lane suffers from a mental disorder. Was this disorder exacerbated by a need for fame or fueled by a society that places a high premium on sports?


Mothers who kill their babies are not that uncommon. A few years back, there was the case of Dominique Cottrez, a woman who killed 8 of her children in a span of 17 years. What's amazing is that Ms. Cottrez was able to keep their births a secret, even from her husband. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. 

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