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Spears, who was living in suburban New York when her son died, is accused of administering sodium through a feeding tube he had in his stomach while he was hospitalized at Westchester Medical Center. Prosecutors say she did it in the bathroom, where there were no surveillance cameras.
"This mother was intentionally feeding her child salt at toxic levels," Westchester County prosecutor Doreen Lloyd said at Spears' arraignment. She also alleged that Spears had done Internet research on the effects of sodium and that Spears had tried to dispose of a bag tainted with sodium by asking a friend to "get rid of it and don't tell anybody."
According to court documents, Spears told police she used only "a pinch of salt" for flavor when feeding her son fruits and vegetables through his tube.
Spears said the feeding tube was necessary because Garnett couldn't keep food down. Some friends told The Journal News they saw no sign of that. They were also confused by her claims that Garnett's father was killed in a car accident. A man who says he's the father lives in Alabama.
Her attorney Stephen Riebling said last week that the defense would focus "on the relevant facts, not fiction."
Spears' lawyers won't comment on whether a psychiatric defense is planned.
But by using a "depraved murder" charge, the district attorney seems to be taking a disorder like Munchausen into consideration.
The charge alleges "extreme recklessness" and "depraved indifference to human life" rather than an intentional killing, so prosecutors don't have to prove that Spears meant to kill her son.
Feldman said it's difficult for jurors to believe a mother would purposely hurt her child just to get attention.
"These mothers tend to be psychopathic," he said. "They don't experience guilt and they lack empathy."
Louisa Lasher, an Atlanta-area consultant in child abuse cases, said parents who have the syndrome "do not love children in the way that most people do."
Munchausen by proxy has been suspected in several court cases over the years. In 1979, a California woman was convicted of murder for slowly poisoning one child; the case was cracked when a second baby came down with similar symptoms. In 2010, a Tennessee woman pleaded guilty but mentally ill to charges she injected saltwater into her infant son's feeding tube. A woman in Minnesota is accused of smothering her son; she said she wanted more attention from doctors.
Most cases rarely end in death because the child "is the goose that lays the golden egg for somebody who's so needy of attention," Sirkin said. "It would defeat the purpose to kill the child." Often when a death occurs, it's because of a miscalculation, Feldman said. (continued...)
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