THE CASE of Latrena Pixley, a baby-killer in Washington, D.C., who has just been awarded custody of her youngest son, advances the worst trend in American criminal jurisprudence — the elevation of compassion for criminals over compassion for victims — to a new milestone.
Pixley is the mother of three boys, ages 8, 7, and 23 months. Once she had a daughter, too. But on the morning of June 19, 1992, she murdered 6-week-old Nakya Dannyell. Pixley had run out of formula and didn't want to listen to the hungry infant cry. So she suffocated Nakya in her crib, then pitched the little corpse into a dumpster. That evening, she and her boyfriend went to a barbecue and stayed out socializing until 2:30 in the morning.
Eventually, Pixley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. But Judge George Mitchell of the D.C. Superior Court, going along with the defense lawyer's claim that Pixley had been suffering from postpartum depression and therefore deserved leniency, gave her a mind-bogglingly trivial sentence: three years in jail, weekends only. The judge didn't want Pixley treated any more severely than would "some high-class society woman" in similar circumstances. "I don't want to be victimized by that kind of thinking."
While his honor was saving himself from victimhood, there was more good news for Pixley. Jerome Miller, head of the D.C. Department of Human Services — the district's primary child-welfare agency — hired her as a clerk. Some agency employees thought it scandalous that they should be working with a woman guilty of infanticide, but Miller reminded them that their agency "is about offering care, concern, and help." Those who remained critical he brushed off as "probably lousy social workers."
Pixley, meanwhile, was not idle. For one thing, she got pregnant again; her third son was born early in 1996. She also got caught committing fraud. The job Miller gave her provided access to other people's names and Social Security numbers, which she used to get credit cards illegally. By the time she was arrested, she had stolen at least $ 1,400 in merchandise.
That landed her back before Judge Mitchell. Now he was angry. For murder he had been willing to go easy on her, but theft, too? This was making him look bad.
"Why should I put my whole career on the line for you?" the judge demanded. "People are going to say I'm a silly judge." He revoked her weekends-only sentence and gave her five to 15 years. (A few months later he would free her again, allowing her to stay at a halfway house.)
Miller, who attended the sentencing hearing, was angry, too. Not, please note, with Pixley. Her credit card scam was an "unfortunate" but minor offense, he said. What really galled him was the prosecutor who wanted her locked up full time. That, he fumed, showed a lack of "decency and compassion."
Actually, it is bureaucrats like Miller and judges like Mitchell who lack proper decency and compassion. To feel greater pity for the killer than for the killed, for the robber than for the robbed, is moral illiteracy. A society that punishes infanticide and theft with weekends in jail and a government job doesn't believe infanticide and theft are particularly bad things. There is no other conclusion. Crimes that we hate we punish severely. When we don't consider a crime all that awful, we make excuses for the perpetrator and forget about the victim.
The Pixley saga would be grotesque enough if it ended here. But it continues with her youngest child, Cornilius, who has been raised almost from birth by Laura Blankman, a Maryland police cadet. (Pixley's two older sons, mercifully, are not in their mother's care.) Blankman has formed such loving ties to Cornilius that she filed papers to adopt him; for his part, the little boy calls her "Mommy" and cuddles with her.
It would seem self-evident that children should be kept as far as possible from convicted child murderers. It would seem equally obvious that a criminal with Pixley's history is grossly unfit to be a mother. But last week, incredibly, another judge rejected Blankman's plea to adopt Cornilius and ordered the boy returned to Pixley.
If taking a 23-month-old from the only real mother he has ever known and giving him to his sister's killer isn't unconscionable, nothing is. But Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael Mason decided that Cornilius belongs with Pixley since, he believes, children are better off with their biological mothers, and black children should be raised by black parents.
Where does this idiocy end? Cornilius doesn't need a mother who shares his DNA or color. He needs a mother who will love him and care for him. He needs a mother with common sense and good character. The last thing he needs is an unstable criminal.
Ah, but who cares what Cornilius needs? It is the needs of the guilty that American law is fixated on, not the needs of toddlers. For the ghastly Latrena Pixley, our system offers "decency and compassion" and a break at every turn. For a 23-month-old child and the police cadet who loves him, it decrees separation and heartbreak. In courtroom after courtroom, child welfare agency after child welfare agency, this is how our system now works. Perpetrators are rewarded, victims are ignored, and children's lives are ruined.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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