Court of Appeal: Three-month custodial sentence upheld for young woman convicted of gross negligence manslaughter of her baby
The Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by the DPP against a sentence of three years and three months’ imprisonment for a young woman convicted of gross negligence manslaughter of her infant child. The final three years of the sentence were suspended by the trial judge and the DPP argued that the sentence was too low in all the circumstances of the case.
Delivering judgment in the case, Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy outlined the unusual circumstances of the “tragic case” and held that a headline sentence of four years was within the discretion of the trial judge. It was also held that the discount permitted for mitigation was appropriate and no error in principle had been identified against the reduction in sentence.
The respondent was a young woman who became pregnant when she was 18 years old and gave birth at the age of 19. In April 2018, the respondent and her mother attended a Care Doc facility because the respondent was complaining of back pain. The respondent was asked to provide a urine sample and spent time in the bathroom.
While in the bathroom, the respondent delivered a baby girl. On her account, she held her daughter for a period of time and then placed the baby and blood-stained tissue in a bin. The child would die without receiving medical attention.
Throughout her pregnancy, the respondent denied being pregnant and consistently refused help or support from her family. Although she was asked by her mother to take a number of pregnancy tests, the respondent tampered with the urine samples to produce negative results.
The respondent later attended hospital where it was apparent that she had given birth and a garda investigation followed. Even after the baby was discovered, the respondent denied giving birth. However, she subsequently cooperated with the gardaí, outlining the circumstances of the birth and the failure to seek medical help for the baby.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge gave “very detailed sentencing remarks” which were a “model of its kind”. A headline sentence of four years’ imprisonment was identified. The court also considered mitigation which included a psychiatric report into the respondent’s mental health, a Probation Service report which identified the respondent as being at low risk of reoffending, the young age of the respondent, engagement with psychiatric services and cooperation with gardaí in the investigation.
The judge reduced the headline sentence by nine months and suspended the final three years on conditions. Accordingly, the effective period of incarceration was three months’ imprisonment.
The DPP appealed the decision, arguing that the sentence was too low in the circumstances of the case. In particular, it was submitted that the concealment of the pregnancy and support available to the respondent increased her culpability for the death. It was also submitted that excessive discount was provided for the mitigation in the case. Finally, it was also submitted that the trial judge erred by placing the case within the medium culpability range in accordance with People (DPP) v. Mahon  IESC 24.
Court of Appeal
Delivering an ex tempore decision, Mr Justice Kennedy began by stating that the case was tragic and arose out of unusual circumstances. The court noted the argument that the respondent’s culpability was heightened due to concealing her pregnancy notwithstanding the support available, but stated that an alternative interpretation was possible.
The court outlined that a view could be taken that the respondent was a troubled young woman and the concealment and refusal of assistance “tells its own story”. In other words, the respondent’s approach “may demonstrate a very limited understanding of her position” which impacted on her culpability.
Considering the issue of deterrence, the court held that it was difficult to see how a higher headline sentence than four years’ imprisonment would deter future conduct. While the headline sentence was on the lower end of the range of penalties set out in the Mahon decision, the ultimate four-year sentence was within the discretion of the trial judge, the court held.
Ms Justice Kennedy also held that the judge afforded appropriate reduction for the mitigation in the case. The trial judge noted the issue of remorse, a letter of apology, the respondent’s personal circumstances, her young age, co-operation with the gardaí and the long term impact on the respondent.
Further, the trial judge was satisfied that a custodial sentence could not be avoided, but “rightly found that the offence was so much against the natural instincts of a parent that the need for deterrence in the circumstances of the present offending was not particularly high”.
The court held that there was no error in principle by the trial judge in suspending the final three years of the sentence. In fact, Ms Justice Kennedy commented that the case was so exceptional that a wholly suspended sentence may have been imposed if the court had been sitting at first instance.
The court had “no hesitation” in dismissing the review of sentence. The three-and-a-half year sentence with the final three years suspended was upheld.
The People at the Suit of the Director of Public Prosecutions v. Corcoran  IECA 20