A federal appeals court has ruled that a US district judge was justified in sentencing a woman to over ten years in prison for the murder of her baby just a day after his birth.
The court agreed that reducing the sentence further than the clemency already extended would undermine justice and the recognition that “an innocent life that was lost.”
The three-judge panel for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to sustain the ruling of a district judge who had already exercised a modicum of leniency in his sentencing of Dana Deegan to 121 months in prison.
Deegan, a mother of three and member of the Three-Affiliated Tribes, gave birth to a baby boy on Oct. 20, 1998, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
According to the case record, Deegan fed, cleaned, dressed her newborn son and placed him in a basket in the few hours after his birth. She then took her other three children, and left the house for two weeks while her baby died of starvation.
When Deegan returned, she transferred the infant corpse to a suitcase, which she abandoned in a ditch near her residence. The case remained a mystery for over seven years until DNA testing linked her to the crime in 2007.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland, who tried the initial case, took into account Deegan’s traumatic upbringing: she was reportedly beaten and abused by her father, and raped by his friends on a repeated basis between the ages of 5 and 11. While the judge could have used current, harsher guidelines that would have given her nearly 20 years in prison, Deegan received 121 months in her sentencing as mandated by 1998 guidelines.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the charge from first-degree to second-degree murder if she pleaded guilty, but Deegan appealed because her sentence was more than the minimum eight to ten years for the latter charge.
The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, however, agreed the district judge had achieved justice in his ruling.
“She left a newborn baby alone in a basket in an empty house without food and water for two weeks until the child died,” wrote Judge Colloton in the majority opinion joined by Judge Bobby Shepherd.
“Whatever the deterrent effect of this sentence, general or specific, and whatever Deegan’s personal history, the court was entitled to consider the need for the sentence imposed to ‘reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense,’” he stated.
“The district court was justified in saying that it could not ‘ignore the fact that there was an innocent life that was lost,’ and that there was a ‘need to ensure that justice is done.”
In his dissent, Circuit Judge Myron Bright claimed a lesser punishment was deserved for the crime, which he termed “neonaticide” and described as when a woman kills her newborn child within 24 hours of birth owing to “overwhelming stress.”
Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick had testified at the 2008 sentencing that there was a substantial difference between neonaticide and infanticide, and that Deegan was not competent to care for a fourth child.
Deegan may seek an appeal to the full 8th Circuit Court, and the case could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.