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June 13, 2021

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Seattle woman arrested 23 years after her infant son was found dead in trash can

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SEATTLE – Baby Boy Doe, who was found dead in a trash can at a 24-hour Lake City convenience store more than 23 years ago, is buried in Section 18 at Seattle’s Calvary Cemetery, his grave stone adorned with a teddy bear in one corner.

Seattle police on Thursday arrested the infant’s now 50-year-old mother and booked her into the King County Jail on investigation of homicide, according to jail records and an item posted on the police department’s online blotter.

According to news accounts from the time the baby boy was discovered on Nov. 20, 1997, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office determined he had been born alive two days earlier and ruled his death a homicide. He was buried in January 1998.

The Seattle woman, who was 27 years old when the baby was born, was identified through genetic genealogy, an evolving technique in which a genealogist uploads a previously unknown DNA profile to public genealogy sites like GEDmatch and then builds a family tree to identify possible suspects.

Until recently, it had been used to identify suspects in decades-old homicide and rape cases but is increasingly being used in abandoned-baby cases.

Genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, of Monterey, California – who helped crack the Golden State Killer case in 2018 and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people the next year – worked on Seattle’s Baby Boy Doe case, Seattle police homicide detective Rolf Norton said.

Norton said a placental blood clot found at the Lake City scene allowed forensic scientists at the State Patrol Crime Lab to develop the mother’s DNA profile early on in the investigation, but it was never matched to DNA included in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a law-enforcement database operated by the FBI.

“I first picked this case up in 2018 and the work by the initial case detectives was very thorough and set us up to be successful in using techniques not available in 1997 or 1998,” he said.

Rae-Venter, who works for DNA Solutions, generated a list of possible names and police then compared photographs to video-surveillance footage from the Chevron station in the 8700 block of Lake City Way Northeast, where the baby was found, Norton said. He said detectives were able to rule out several people before obtaining a sample of the woman’s DNA during an undercover operation.

Norton learned the sample matched DNA from the crime scene on Dec. 31.

“What’s fascinating is going way back into unsolved homicides is that there were a lot of these (abandoned baby) cases in the 1940s and ’50s. It really floored me,” he said.

There was another rash of cases in the 1990s and early 2000s, but they don’t seem to be nearly so common now, said Norton, who declined to talk about the Baby Boy Doe case in detail because the woman has not been criminally charged.

In 2002, Washington state enacted its Safe Haven law, which provides legal amnesty to parents who surrender infants no older than 72 hours to a staff member in hospital emergency rooms, fire stations and rural health clinics.

“The legislature recognizes that prenatal and postdelivery health care for newborns and their mothers is especially critical to their survival and well-being,” says a note explaining the law’s intent. “The legislature does not intend to encourage the abandonment of newborn children … but rather to assure that abandonment does not occur and that all newborns have an opportunity for adequate health care and a stable home life.”

The Seattle woman will make her first court appearance Friday, and prosecutors are expected to make a charging decision by Tuesday, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesman for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

The statute of limitations for manslaughter is three years, which has run out, but there is no statute of limitations for felony murder, he said.

For nearly 30 years, Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University has researched and written extensively about legal and ethical issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, including neonaticide, the term for infant homicide within the first 24 hours of life. She said the crime is marked by extreme impulsivity and not a deliberate, premeditated strategy seen in first-degree murder cases.

Those who abandon their babies tend to be “socially isolated, marginalized and vulnerable women who find themselves paralyzed in the face of pregnancy” without a trusted person in their lives to turn to for help, she said.

In all but one case she’s studied, Oberman said the baby’s father was out of the picture long before the mother went into labor, and a lack of money and resources often factored into the decision to abandon a newborn.

“There’s blood on more than one set of hands,” she said of the circumstances surrounding an infant’s death through abandonment. “I think we’re so disturbed by the fact pattern that we fail to engage with what would cause a person to do this, deliver a baby unattended and react with that kind of fear and panic.”

Citing research by Dr. Margaret Spinelli, a psychiatrist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, Oberman said vulnerable women can be in such profound denial about their pregnancies that they experience a psychotic break during labor.

Despite Safe Haven laws, the crime of neonaticide persists and there’s no reason to think numbers are declining, said Oberman, noting states vary widely in the punishment meted out, from life in prison to a manslaughter conviction with probation.

“My sense is these cases look a lot like manslaughter,” Oberman said. “I believe the taking of a human life necessitates a criminal-justice response, but I think the over-prosecution of these cases with the highest possible charges is irresponsible.”

She said cases like the Baby Boy Doe case are complicated, and it’s important to understand who the mother was at the time she delivered.

“It’s naive to think there’s a quick fix for these cases. They expose the raw underbelly of what goes through a woman’s mind when she finds out she’s pregnant,” Oberman said. “This is a such a tragedy but putting a person in prison for the rest of her life just compounds the tragedy.”

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