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Infanticide in Malta

Infanticide is a general term for child murder, while neonaticide is the term used for children slain within the first 24 hours of life. These crimes have specific characteristics that distinguish them from other murders. While women commit very little violent crime, nearly all killings of newborns are committed by mothers.

A well in a field – a popular place for hiding corpses after a homicide.A well in a field – a popular place for hiding corpses after a homicide.

Prior to 1947, infanticide in Malta was considered like other homicides, with the death penalty as the maximum punishment. However, the four women condemned to death for this crime were all reprieved.

Since 1800, Ġużeppa Buttigieg was the first woman convicted of the crime of infanticide. Buttigieg, aged 21, gave birth to a child at the Central Hospital in Floriana on March 24, 1856. The married woman lived in Żurrieq and worked as a housemaid in Valletta. Marija Zammit, also of Żurrieq, fostered the child for some time after the birth.

Sometime in September 1856, Buttigieg demanded her child on the pretext that she had no money to pay for her child’s care. Zammit gave her the child wrapped in a lace garment which eventually provided the clue to the solution of the crime. Some days later, the body of a baby was found in a well in Ħal Millieri.

As the child was unidentifiable the police exhibited the lace garment in the Żurrieq police station and requested the inhabitants of the nearby villages to help solve this atrocious crime.

The lace garment was identified by Marija Zammit and Buttigieg was charged with the murder of her child. The trial was held on December 15, 1856, and the accused was found guilty with a unanimous guilty verdict, and she was sentenced to death. This sentence was, however, postponed by the Governor as Buttigieg was certified being pregnant. Later she was reprieved and received a life sentence. However, in prison she did not give birth to a child and it appeared that the woman was not pregnant at all.

The Ospozio in Floriana, which housed the women’s prison until 1895.The Ospozio in Floriana, which housed the women’s prison until 1895.

It is worth mentioning that death sentences could not be carried out on women while they were pregnant, and after October 1934, death sentences could no longer be passed on pregnant women.

The case of 75-year-old Evanġelista Cini from Żebbuġ is somewhat different from that of Buttigieg as Cini was not the mother of the child. Cini had a 35-year-old daughter, Marija, who in March 1858 gave birth to an illegitimate child. Marija revealed to her mother that it was a Ġużeppi Cachia of Campis Street, Żebbuġ, who had made her pregnant.

Early in the morning of March 12, 1858, Cachia found the body of a newborn child in his cellar. The baby had been thrown from a small window outside Cachia’s residence and the post-mortem revealed that it had died after the fall.

 Police enquiries revealed that Marija had given birth to a child and when questioned by the police she admitted the whole story.  Although Marija and her mother were charged with the crime, the jury found only Cini guilty whereas her daughter was acquitted. Cini was sentenced to death but she was later reprieved and sent to prison for the rest of her life. She died soon after at the women’s prison at the Ospizio in Floriana.

Rużarja Farrugia, a 23-year-old unmarried woman from Qormi, was also accused of killing her neonatal baby. On November 22, 1859, Farrugia was found guilty of strangling the baby with a cord, however, the jurors declared that the accused had acted under sudden passion and was not capable of reflecting in the act of committing the crime. The Court sentenced Farrugia to six years’ imprisonment.

Two years later, 40-year-old Ġużeppa Sultana from Żebbuġ was also charged of homicide after burying alive her neonatal baby. On May 6, 1861, Sultana was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment because once more the jurors said the accused could not be held totally responsible.

On May 15, 1890, another baby was found buried in a field in Żurrieq, close to the house of Marjanna Camilleri. Police enquiries revealed that Camilleri was separated from her husband, and after giving birth to an illegitimate child, she went to stay with her mother in Cospicua.

The bastion behind Lintorn Barracks, Floriana, where a 36-year-old unmarried woman from Valletta abandoned her baby. On February 28, 1964, she was found guilty of concealment of the child’s birth and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.The bastion behind Lintorn Barracks, Floriana, where a 36-year-old unmarried woman from Valletta abandoned her baby. On February 28, 1964, she was found guilty of concealment of the child’s birth and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.

The midwife who had attended the woman during her pregnancy was the one who reported Bartolo’s pregnancy to the police. Although the midwife was not present during the birth of the child, she had visited Camilleri after she had given birth and found the baby in a urinal. She said she was paid half a crown for her services and told not to call again as her services were no longer required.

The post-mortem revealed that the baby had been buried alive  about two days previously. Twenty-five-year-old Camilleri was charged with wilful homicide. In a statement to the police Camilleri said that before leaving Żurrieq, she had left the child with a friend of hers, Madallena Camilleri, and paid her four pounds to take care of the baby. Although further investigations revealed that this story had been made up, Madallena Camilleri was charged as an accomplice in the crime.

The trial of both women was heard on August 1, 1890. Madallena Camilleri was acquitted due to lack of evidence, whereas Marjanna Camilleri was found guilty with a verdict of 7 to 2, and she was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. 

The Barone case differs from the above-mentioned neonaticides. On March 10, 1910, a man who happened to be passing near Balluta Bay, St Julian’s, noticed a strange object floating in the sea. After dragging the ‘object’ ashore, he found it was the dead body of a newly born baby girl.

A post-mortem examination carried out by three doctors established that the baby had been born alive and died of asphyxia due to drowning.

While women commit very little violent crime, nearly all killings of newborns are committed by mothers

Police enquires revealed that two women, later identified as Giovanna Brown and her mother, were seen in the vicinity of Balluta Bay on March 10. It was also revealed that Brown, an unmarried woman who lived about 400 metres from Balluta, was pregnant. When questioned by the police Brown said that her baby was not yet due; however, a doctor certified that the woman had just given birth to a child.

Further enquiries revealed that Brown was in love with Francesco Barone, a 33-year-old Sicilian. Their love affair had started in August 1899, when Brown was already pregnant and although Barone was not responsible for her pregnancy he promised to marry her after giving birth to the child.

In her statement to the police Brown said that when the child was due, her mother wanted to call the midwife, but Barone opposed this as he was aware that the midwife was in duty bound to inform the police after assisting the birth of a child. Brown said that as soon as the baby was born, Barone wrapped the child in a blanket and tried to strangle her. She also alleged that Barone had killed the child and placed the baby in a small zinc bath that he filled with water. According to Brown when her mother visited her the following day they planned to bury the baby in a cemetery, but once more Barone opposed this idea so they went to Balluta Bay, where they disposed of the baby.

Barone was charged with wilful homicide and his trial opened on  April 1, 1901. Brown turned King’s evidence, and in her testimony she repeated the statement she had earlier made to the police. The defence counsel maintained that Brown and her mother had killed the child and framed the accused by fabricating the story revealed in court. The defence said the baby had been thrown alive into the sea. The verdict was six votes to three and Barone was found guilty as charged and received a life prison sentence. He was released by pardon on April 1, 1911.

The list of unsolved crimes also includes several featuring the discovery of thrown away babies. Sometime before noon on October 13, 1924, when a party of young men and boys were in the glacis ditches around Valletta searching for snails they discovered a bundle wrapped in a white napkin hidden by stones. At first, it was thought the bundle contained a dead dog, but impelled by curiosity, one of the boys lifted the loose end of the napkin and was horrified to find a dead baby.

Balluta Bay, St Julian’s, where the dead body of Giovanna Brown’s newly born baby girl was discovered floating in the sea on March 10, 1910.Balluta Bay, St Julian’s, where the dead body of Giovanna Brown’s newly born baby girl was discovered floating in the sea on March 10, 1910.

The district medical officer declared that it was a baby girl, apparently a few days old. But even more atrocious was the news that the baby’s throat had been cut by a sharp knife or razor. The head was almost completely severed from the trunk and only the skin at the back of the neck and a few ligaments remained, connecting the head and body. The case remained unsolved. 

A similar case was the discovery of a dead baby in a field in Ħamrun in June 1931. A post-mortem examination revealed that rats had gnawed the body. Four years later a dead baby was also found in a residence in Rue D’Argens, Gżira.

On June 28, 1939, 22-year-old Anni Cardona was accused of killing her newborn baby. Cardona admitted suffocating her baby because she was afraid to tell her father about the child. After a guilty verdict, the jurors asked for clemency because the accused had acted under sudden passion and was not capable of reflecting in the act of committing the crime. The court sentenced Cardona to six years’ imprisonment.

The 1934 law that prohibited the passing of the death sentence upon expectant mothers.The 1934 law that prohibited the passing of the death sentence upon expectant mothers.

 The only recorded case of infanticide in Gozo was that of Mariton Pace who killed her baby in a war shelter. On April 18, 1943, Pace was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after she was found guilty of wilful homicide. The following year, 19-year-old Vittorja Micallef was sentenced to death after she was found guilty of a similar crime. The sentence was, however, commuted to life imprisonment and she died three years later while still serving the prison sentence.

The infanticide law of 1947 effectively abolished the death penalty for a woman who deliberately killed her newborn child, while the balance of her mind was disturbed as a result of giving birth.

The 1947 amendment of the criminal code stated that: “Where a woman by any wilful act or omission causes the death of her child under the age of 12 months, but at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effects of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effects of the lactation consequent upon the birth of the child, then, notwithstanding that the circumstances were such that but for this section the offence would have amounted to wilful homicide, shall be guilty of infanticide and shall be liable to the punishment of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 20 years.”

Only the mother of the child can be charged with infanticide; any other person assisting in the act of killing is liable to be charged with wilful homicide.

The first woman indicted under the new law was a 36-year-old unmarried woman from Valletta. After giving birth to a child, the woman left the baby behind Lintorn Barracks in Floriana.

The discovery was made a few days later and the woman was charged with infanticide through abandonment and exposure of the baby. On February 28, 1964, the accused was found guilty of concealment of the birth of a child and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment.

The last newborn homicide trial was held in October 1982. A 26-year-old unmarried woman was indicted with wilful homicide after throwing her baby from the window of her fourth floor apartment in Valletta. The body of the baby was found at 5am on June 6, 1979. Medical experts appointed by the court declared that the woman was of sound mind when she committed the crime. For this reason, the woman was accused of wilful homicide, not infanticide. However, the jurors were compassionate in their verdict and found her guilty of infanticide, a lesser crime with a lesser punishment. In view of the fact that the accused had not been granted bail and her trial had been heard after more than three years, the compassionate judge sentenced her to just four days’ imprisonment.

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