Mitchelle Blair and the Incomprehensible Horror of Filicide
July 8, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The ancient Greeks recognized maternal filicide as the ultimate depravity, a sign of a woman gone mad, if not a woman gone wholly evil. When the playwright Euripides has Medea slaughter her children to get back at her perfidious husband Jason, the act is one of both vengeance and utter insanity. After all, by the time Medea gets around to boiling her babies, she has already poisoned Jason’s new lover. Never is a woman as crazy and broken as when she has murdered her own offspring.
. . . Which Brings Us to Detroit
In March, police found the bodies of two children packed into a freezer in the living room of a Detroit home. Stephen Berry died in 2012 at the age of 9 years. His sister, Stoni Blair, apparently died about nine months later in 2013 at the age of 13.
Last week, the children’s mother, Mitchelle Blair, entered guilty pleas in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court to a first-degree murder charge in the death of her daughter and a felony murder charge in the death of her son. Judge Dana Margaret Hathaway accepted Blair’s plea. A formal sentencing will take place on July 17, but her conviction will result in an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Both children appeared to have been tortured before their deaths. Blair admits that she withheld food from her children for weeks as punishment. She beat, choked, punched, and kicked them. She admits throwing boiling water on Stephen’s genitals and forcing him to drink Windex.
Two of Blair’s other children continued to live in the home, both aware that their siblings’ bodies were in the freezer. The surviving children both bore signs of prolonged physical abuse, which they say their mother inflicted.
Maternal filicide sits uncomfortably with notions of mental illness, moral depravity, and criminal insanity. Mitchelle Blair’s case is shocking because of the brutality of the maltreatment leading up to Stoni and Stephen’s deaths, but it is especially troubling because of the reasons she gave the court for why she acted.
Mitchelle Blair insists that her youngest son, now 8, told her that Stoni and Stephen had sexually abused him. That, she claims, is why she was pleased to see Stoni and Stephen die.
Blair admits that her actions led to Stephen’s death, though she maintains that she did not intend to kill him. Blair apparently editorialized, “If I had killed Stephen intentionally I definitely would be proud to say I did, but I didn’t.”
Blair admits to intentionally ending Stoni’s life. She told Judge Hathaway, “I do not feel any remorse for what I did to Stoni because she had no remorse for what she did to my son. She not only raped him, but she gang raped him with Stephen.”
But did she? Did he?
The case presents a terrible question. What is worse: a mother murdering her children and lying about why she did it, or a mother who, before murdering her children, passed on her abusive tendencies to two of her children who in turn victimized their sibling?
Blair may obviously be lying about her youngest son’s report. Any woman capable of the sadism happening in that home would hardly flinch at fabricating the truth. Why would a woman pleading guilty to charges carrying mandatory life sentences bother lying about her motivation? Further cruelty on the part of Blair? Blaming her victims after taking their lives may be the greatest example of adding insult to injury that one can imagine.
It is also possible that Blair’s youngest son, allegedly the victim of his older sibling’s sexual assaults, was fabricating the story. In this case, the blame still falls squarely on the mother who would exact brutal rough justice on her own children, based simply on a six-year-old’s account. Kids lie. In fact, a six-year-old making up stories might have been the most normal thing going on in the Blair household.
Of course, Mitchelle Blair might genuinely believe that Stoni and Stephen were harming their brother, even if the belief sprouted out of pure delusion. Blair’s paranoia and delusions might have been caused by an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia. Blair pleaded guilty, but many high-profile maternal filicide cases lead to insanity pleas.
Phillip Resnick has been studying this strange and disturbing crime for decades. The forensic psychiatrist expert on maternal filicide has identified five motive profiles into which most murdering moms fit: altruistic filicide, fatal maltreatment, “unwanted child” filicide, spouse revenge, and acutely psychotic filicide. Resnick has also found that maternal filicide rates increase in populations plagued by economic stress and social isolation. Psychiatric disorders, of course, don’t help either.
Teresa Moses is one example. She tortured and murdered her eight-year-old son Raijon Daniels in 2006. The autopsy conducted after Raijon’s death found that the boy showed signs of starvation. Moses kept her son tied up with nylon cord, on a bed rigged with motion detectors. She would spray him with a high pressure hose to wash the excrement off of his body, sometimes forcing him to soak in a tub filled with Pine-Sol and filth.
The 26-year-old woman first pleaded “no contest” to the first-degree murder charge, but prosecutors and defense attorneys later supported the finding that Moses was “not guilty by reason of criminal insanity.” She was released from Napa State Hospital after three years of state-mandated treatment.
Her doctors considered her a model patient.
Sibling Sex Abuse Happens
However terrible it is to contemplate, Stoni and Stephen might have actually been abusing their younger brother in the ways that Mitchelle Blair claims. No wrongdoing would begin to justify their mother’s actions, of course, but the sad reality is that children surrounded by persistent domestic torture might not have the clearest picture of what healthy loving relationships should look like.
Some studies support the notion that violence begets violence: most mothers who kill their own young children were themselves victims of childhood abuse. Other experts suspect that factors such as family violence and low maternal affection can increase the risk of sibling sexual abuse. And, if Josh Duggar has taught us anything it is that sexual abuse among siblings happens.
Maternal filicide is a jarring inversion of what is usually the most solid piece of the social order. Nothing is more reliable than a mother’s love for her child. Maternal neglect or maltreatment are heartbreaking. Maternal filicide is mind-breaking. It is incomprehensible. It is almost an incoherent notion — to be a mother is to love and protect, so how could it be true that she could maim and murder? The predicate logic doesn’t compute. We want to use a universal quantifier, and it’s terrible to express maternal love and protection with an existential quantifier instead.
Mitchelle Blair serves as a painful reminder that, though most mothers love and protect their children, not all do. And some do horrible things.