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Inside legislation keeping a baby killer free from accountability

A Sydney woman who appeared to lead a happy, loved and normal life drowned and killed her infant son — but a relatively recent act means she will not be held criminally responsible.

user iconNaomi Neilson 29 May 2023 Big Law
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Content warning: Mental illness, death of an infant.

On the afternoon of Thursday, 20 May 2021, Roberta Seville — a pseudonym to protect the accused woman — waited for her husband to leave their home, and she drowned their four-month-old son in the bath.

Ms Seville was a much-loved member of her community who had a large social circle, was active in her church, had never abused drugs or alcohol, and was a loving mother to a three-year-old daughter.

 
 

She had also never intersected with the criminal justice system.

The killing was “absolutely out of character” for Ms Seville.

“How and why did such a person come to do such a distressing and lamentable act to her own baby?” NSW Supreme Court’s Justice Richard Button had to ask himself in a recent judgment.

“The answer, I am well satisfied, is that, at the time, the accused suffered from a mental health impairment that led her to fail to appreciate the profound and palpable wrongfulness of her act.”

In 2020, the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Act was implemented and allows a court to enter a special verdict of act proven but not criminally responsible, provided both the defendant and prosecutor agree on the impairment.

With assistance from the highly experienced legal professionals in the courtroom and advice from forensic psychiatrists, Justice Button was able to deliver this finding for Ms Seville.

In the months after the birth of her son, who was hard to settle given a hearing impairment, loved ones said Ms Seville was “not herself”.

Despite medication and contact from support services, Ms Seville failed to take these, “and no doubt due to the self-referential lack of insight that is a notorious symptom of mental illness”.

The court heard her plan was to escape the stresses of her life by becoming incarcerated for her son’s death, “with the hope that she herself might be killed in custody”, the court heard.

“To express my opinion more clearly: this was not an act of resentment against the baby, nor some form of punishment of her husband or anyone else, nor an explosion of anger or frustration giving way to fatal violence,” Justice Button said.

“On the contrary, it was a deeply irrational act, motivated by ideas that were divorced from reality.”

Ms Seville will continue to receive care, and psychiatric experts have been charged to take responsibility for her recovery and her gradual reintegration back into the community.

The matter is R v Seville.

Help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Respect on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Each law society and bar association also has further contacts available on their respective websites.