Sunday, January 9, 2000

Murder until recently had familiar gradations: first degree, second degree and third degree. Now it is also defined by the age of the victim. Kill a newborn infant which could legally have been aborted moments before while still inside its mother and the old standards governing premeditation, intent or malice don’t seem to apply; it’s no big deal. It was hardly a person anyhow.

That at least is the message the courts sent in dealing with Brian Peterson and Amy Grossberg the two teens who killed their newborn baby boy in November 1996 moments after Grossberg delivered him in a seedy Delaware motel room. Both were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to light prison terms; young Peterson has just been released after serving all of 18 months for his crime considerably less than even the minimum 2* years appalled critics assumed they would serve. A conviction for manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The trial judge, Henry duPont Ridgley, spoke of “the intrinsic value of the life of the child” during the sentencing but that value must be regarded as pretty low given the facts of the case and their ultimate consequences:

The dead infant was found wrapped in plastic and thrown, like yesterday’s Chinese take-out, in a trash bin. Though the two teens maintained their child was stillborn, an autopsy conducted by the state medical examiner’s officer found the boy was born alive and died of skull fractures caused by blows and as a result of being shaken violently.

The callousness of the act numbs the soul. Neither Grossberg nor Peterson evinced much regret for their behavior and it was clear from their attitudes and conduct before, during and after the trial that the only thing that mattered to each was getting on with their just-beginning Yuppie lives. Both teens came from fairly affluent families. These were not scared young kids in desperate straits, compelled by economics and circumstances to an act of brutality against their own flesh and blood. No, just a pair of selfish suburban kids who cared more about their social calendar and upcoming prom than taking responsibility for the life they created. Had the dead child not been found or traced back to the two teens it’s likely they would have gone on about their lives as if nothing had happened. At least, nothing more significant than a night spent cutting toenails, sleeping off a hangover… or getting rid of an inconvenient “accident.”

Eighteen months. Most stick-up men and check fraud artists spend more time in jail. In our culture of death, the life of an infant killed violently by its own parents and left to die, cold and alone, in a garbage bin is, apparently, worth less than the contents of a purse, a kited check. So much for Judge Ridgley’s “intrinsic value of human life.” So much for right and wrong; so much for self-respect. The world turned upside down.

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