MANASSAS — A judge has sentenced a Manassas baby sitter to five years in prison for the murder of a toddler she had been watching, leaving the child’s family outraged by the light sentence.Twenty-two-year-old Jessica Fraraccio pleaded guilty last year to killing 23-month-old Elijah Nealey after he wouldn’t stop crying.Fraraccio had initially said Elijah slipped in the tub, but months later admitted pulling a chair out from under him and smothering him.
Why? 1) The murder was intentional. 2) Fraraccio was in a position of trust. 3) She, unlike Ethan Couch, the teenaged drunk driver in the “affluenza” vehicular homicide case, was an adult. 4) As bad as killing someone accidentally while driving drunk (and without a license, and speeding) is, killing a helpless infant intentionally is worse.
Worse also than the lenient judge’s rationale in the Ethan Couch case—she believes the boy can be rehabilitated—is the utterly indefensible theory of the judge who sentenced Fraraccio. From the Washington Post:
Judge J. Howe Brown sentenced Fraraccio to 50 years but suspended 45 and required that she send a check of at least a dollar to a charity of her choosing on the date of Elijah’s death every year after her release. Brown said that he thought a long sentence would serve neither the Nealey family nor Fraraccio. “Nothing I can do brings back Elijah or makes them feel better,” he said about the boy’s parents. Of Fraraccio, he added, “Likewise, nothing I can do to punish her is more important than her memory of what she did.”
This makes no sense as sentencing theory. No criminal sentence for any crime undoes the harm of the crime. And elevating regret and remorse to the equivalent of punishment means that those who do not feel sufficiently guilty, remorseful or contrite will be punished not for what they did, but for how they felt or didn’t feel about it afterwards. Nowhere in the law, however, does a crime include feelings (except hate crime laws, which are a disgrace to logic and democracy), because feelings cannot be mandated by the government, and laws prohibit acts, not feelings during or after the acts. As I wrote when discussing the reluctance to prosecute parents who inadvertently broil their children by leaving them locked in hot automobiles:
“…the father who accidentally kills his son by striking him too hard while in a rage; the mother whose toddler poisons herself by ingesting the crack cocaine her mother left on the table; even a Susan Smith, who murdered her two children, all have created their own “punishments” too. To conclude that society should just allow these horrors to occur without making the statement, “This is intolerable, and the person responsible for an avoidable tragedy must be held accountable by the law” constitutes a moral, ethical and legal shrug [and] constitutes punishing individuals for how they feel about what they did, rather than their conduct itself. The government can’t make feelings a crime, any more than it can make speech a crime. If we are not going to punish the grief-stricken father who has to be restrained from killing himself when he discovers his dead child, we can’t punish the mother in the same situation who shakes her head and says, “Oh, well. At least I have three more back home. And we can use the extra room.” Her feelings and her words may be repugnant, but she has a right to them.
Fraraccio killed the toddler intentionally, unless you have another interpretation of these undisputed facts:
“Fraraccio later admitted that while Elijah was eating lunch, she kicked the chair out from under him because he wouldn’t stop crying. The boy hit his head on the table, then the floor.As Elijah wailed harder, Fraraccio became frustrated, then enraged, and picked the boy up with one arm as if he were a football. She covered his mouth with her hand and slammed his head on the stair railing. When she finally put the boy down, his body was limp. Fraraccio had smothered the child to death.”
But she feels really, really bad about it now, so there’s that.
If a society respects life, there must be a proportional societal reaction when an individual, without any justification, callously takes a life. Five years for killing an infant in one’s protection and charge may be considered a reasonable price in Europe, where abortion on demand is cant, euthanizing the elderly is rapidly gaining acceptance and no murder, regardless of how terrible, is deemed sufficient reason to execute a killer. But Europe, as it is in other respects philosophical and political, is wrong. Punishment in the criminal justice system establishes a society’s values and priorities; it is not merely a closed transaction between the offender and the justice system. If the life of an individual has value, and if the taking of that life involved no mitigating factors like self-defense, society must express sufficient disapproval out of respect for the innocent diseased and to re-affirm society’s revulsion of murder.
And what about mercy? Compassion? There is a place for these ethical values in sentencing killers—rarely–but a judge whose over-whelming instinct is to feel compassion for adult murderers because anyone can have a bad day, people deserve a second chance and “can’t you see she feels terrible already?” belongs in another profession.
Or on another continent.
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem