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Our Moral Obligation Is to Extract a Price

James Q. Wilson is emeritus professor of management and public policy at UCLA

When Marie Noe pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder, a Philadelphia criminal court had to decide what to do with the 70-year-old woman who admitted to murdering eight of her infants decades ago.

It made the wrong decision: It put her on probation for 20 years, with the first five years being served at home under the surveillance of an electronic monitoring system.

It is not hard to see why the court acted as it did. The crimes occurred 30 or more years ago. Without her confession, it might have been difficult to prove that she killed the infants. But the consequence of letting her, in effect, walk free is too high a price to pay for avoiding a difficult trial. She might have been acquitted, but at least there would have been a reasonable chance of establishing her guilt.

The sentence of probation, of course, can be defended on several grounds. Punishment deters future crimes by the accused, but deterrence is meaningless for Marie Noe since, at her age, she can never have another infant. Punishment incapacitates a criminal so he or she cannot commit another crime, but Marie Noe, having no more children she could kill, does not need incapacitation. Punishment might prevent rehabilitation, but I doubt there are many psychiatrists who think that they can change the personality of a 70-year-old. And if they can change it, it could be done in prison as easily as in an office.

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But probation violates the most important reason for punishment: the moral obligation to make wrongdoers pay a price. Probation for Marie Noe means that the cost to a woman for killing her eight infants is having to stay inside her home for five years. If she had only killed one, perhaps she wouldn’t have to stay home at all.

Her age and her mind are irrelevant to this issue. There is no statute of limitations on murder precisely because it is a horrible crime for which anyone is perpetually liable. Her mental state is relevant to deciding whether a killing was premeditated, accidental or in self-defense, but killing eight infants can hardly be called accidental, unintended or necessary.

Her lawyer said that she “did not have the heart of a killer,” but that remark, while perhaps meaningful if she killed but one infant, is meaningless when she kills eight.

A subconscious excuse might be that the victims were “only” babies. In other cases, courts have imposed lighter penalties for killing infants than for killing adults, a profound oddity when the murder deprives an infant of 70 or more years of life while killing a 40-year-old deprives him or her of only 30 or so.

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What is most troubling is that the district attorney who handled the case said that the soft penalty brought “‘finality” to the case. The task of a prosecutor, however, is not to “finalize” a charge but to discover who committed the crime.

If the district attorney had gone to trial, she might have lost. But she would have done her duty. By not doing her duty, she leaves the country with the thought that if someone kills infants and the crimes are not discovered for three decades, it is all right.


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