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Emily Portellos, crimes against “women’s essentialist nature,” and the pointlessness of imprisonment

Bastardette and I continue to write about the legalized child abandonment laws (so called baby dunp, or baby Moses/safe haven laws,) their ongoing failures, and how babies are still consistently turning up dead and women are still consistently going to jail.

I’ve written repeatedly, that rather than legalized child abandonment, there could, and must be other more constructive ways of dealing with these situations.

Earlier this month, in After almost a decade, Mississippi “safe haven” legalized child abandonment scheme still fails, I wrote:

Child abandonment in other parts of the world is understood to be tangled up in a knot of social and psychological issues:

  • poverty
  • immigration and fear of deportation
  • domestic violence
  • underage parenting
  • already parenting multiple children
  • cultural and individual shame
  • desperation
  • fear of rejection
  • dissociation

to name just a few.

These are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Here in America, child abandonment  is treated as a form of false binary

  • either one uses the legalized child abandonment programs (which strip parental rights and in many cases the child’s identity) but it affords the “affirmative defense” against prosecution (though prosecutions in some jurisdictions are still certainly possible)
  • or they abandon outside the program and are instantly branded criminals and potential murderesses (or murders)

No acknowledgement of the complexities involved or the societal infrastructures or mental health services necessary to support these families is made.

If one has come to the point of abandoning a child, it’s either avail yourself of the legalized abandonment system (and) or criminal charges, your “choice”.

Neither of which even begin to address the root issues that drove said person or persons to the act of child abandonment.

Naturally some turn up alive, others turn up dead.

Fear of women committing neonatacide is what was utilized as justification for legalizing child abandonment, and those who advocated for these laws offered them as a “solution” assuring politicians the days of dumpster babies would end.

Now all 50 states and DC have the laws on the books, but the dead babies just keep on coming.

All at the cost of the human rights of the kids who are legally abandoned and the direct cost to the health and potentially life of women who attempt to deliver in secret hoping to legally abandon.

Thus we come to today’s news, see Woman gets 10-20 in baby’s death from the Detroit Free Press.

Emily Portellos, 30, received a sentence of 10-20 years in the death of her newborn daughter.

Judge Daniel Ryan pointed out the sentence was half of what the prosecution asked for, noting that the father of the child, Robert Murphy, and his mother Marilyn Murphy, both disagreed with the prosecution’s request for a longer sentence.

The Murphys spoke on Emily’s behalf and sat with members of Emily’s family, and hugged and embraced after the sentencing.

Clearly, Emily’s case is complicated:

Christos said Portellos is not mentally retarded, but does have a learning disability and testimony showed she had difficulty making decisions under pressure, a point Ryan seconded in his verdict.

Shipping her off to jail for 10-20 years isn’t going to help anyone.

The prosecutor, leaning heavily on archetypical bad mothers, argued Portellos killed the baby out of personal  “selfishness”:

…out of fear of her mother’s disapproval and shame in the eyes of a conservative Greek Orthodox community.

The defense argued the death an accident:

A Wayne County jury took four days after a two-week trial to convict Portellos of second-degree murder and child abuse. She had been charged with first-degree murder for the death of the child on Oct. 15, 2008, in her bedroom in the home she shared with her mother and brother.

Defense lawyers countered that Portellos did not realize she was pregnant and that the child most likely bled to death through an unclamped umbilical cord.

The baby was found wrapped in towels in a garbage bag in Portellos’ blood-smeared room.

From there, it only got more complicated:

Weingarden said Portellos had to be aware of her pregnancy, especially since she had given birth before. That child was immediately given up for adoption.

The prosecutor, Lora Weingarden, then proceeded to co-opt the “voice” of the dead baby, arguing that Emily should be imprisoned throughout most of her remaining fertile years, thus stripping her of her reproductive capacity as punishment perhaps not merely for this child’s death, but in some sick version of two strikes and you’re out.

Weingarden said she was speaking on behalf of the dead child. Weingarden had argued for the longer sentence that would keep Portellos behind bars almost through her childbearing years, and would send a strong message not to kill babies.

“Most of all we ask you to do justice for this baby,” Weingarden said.

As I just finished writing earlier this month:

American society recognizes other extra legal acts more as “cries for help” or circumstances under which services rather than jail time are warranted. But child abandonment remains this all or nothing binary of a “non-bureaucratic placement” entry into the adoption system via the “safe haven/baby Moses laws” or a one way ticket to jail. that’s because this is viewed not merely as a women’s crime, but of the very act of women negating “women’s essentialist nature.” After all, what could be a greater crime in a hypernatalist culture such as modern day America than a woman perceived to be rejecting her “maternal instincts?”

It doesn’t matter that the perception is so often completely at odds with the details of the realities women who abandon face.

Is it any wonder then, that a female prosecutor argued the case?

Had a male prosecutor gone after Emily he could have been perceived as a bully, cruelly hounding her. A female prosecutor, on the other hand, could take on the role of the “good” woman chastising and accusing a “bad” woman; a ‘murderess who had been given another chance’ and that having resulted in a dead baby.

If neonatacides are societally viewed in America as the very act of women negating “women’s essentialist nature” then who better to argue for the harshest penalties than another woman?

The prosecuter then becomes an appropriate model of womanhood in the eyes of the state, not a woman who feels solidarity or empathy with the woman on trial, but one who stands uniquely poised to demand as cruel a sentence as this hypernatalist culture can contrive.



Nope, not “off with her head,” it’s ‘off with her ability to (hopefully) ever bear  a child again!’

When a female prosecutor co-opts the dead baby’s “voice” more than merely invoking the presence of the victim, she also retains inherent to her as a woman an embodiment of (potential or otherwise) maternal nature itself.

Outside court, Weingarden said she is disappointed by Ryan’s decision: “The sentence doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the crime.”

“I hope young women don’t take this as a license” to emulate Portellos’ actions, believing they will face a potentially lenient sentence, she said.

Some days it’s hard to even fathom the complete and utter stupidity flowing from certain people’s mouths.

Does Weingarden genuinely think for one minute other young women will read about Emily’s 10-20 year sentence and say to themselves,

‘Cool! I think I’ll go out and get pregnant and see if I can deliver a baby and have it bleed out, only to leave it wrapped in towels in a garbage bag in my blood-smeared room! After all, she got off so easy, I’m sure I can too! Nothing to worry about, I’m peachy-keen.’

While small town America can indeed get pretty boring on any given Tuesday night, somehow, I just don’t think there are girls sitting around their rooms concocting plans to come up with dead babies of their own so as to ‘only’ spend 10-20 years in prison.

Can anyone tell me with a straight face that other young women will run out to go enjoy their “license” in this manner?

The women who find themselves at the center of these cases don’t set out to end up in these circumstances because they court watch to see what kind of sentence they’d be likely to get,  or for some sick version of fun.

They find themselves here more often than not when they’ve found some point beyond the ends of their ropes.

Rather than pointlessly locking them away for decades, we as a society need to do better by them.

One Response to “Emily Portellos, crimes against “women’s essentialist nature,” and the pointlessness of imprisonment”

  1. Marley Greiner Says:

    “… disappointed by Ryan’s decision: “The sentence doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the crime.”
    “I hope young women don’t take this as a license” to emulate Portellos’ actions, believing they will face a potentially lenient sentence, she said.

    This is truly one of the dumbest, if not THE dumbest statement I’ve seen come from the mouth of government dump pimps.

    Since when is 20 years a lenient sentence? I used to work with prisoner rights, and believe me, nobody thought 20 years was getting off easy unless the only alternative was execution.

    In fact, this 20 years sentence is really rough. I could understand 7-25 which is a common sentence. But the truth is historically, neonaticide sentences have been lenient–at least until dump laws came into vogue. It’s a crap shoot. I’ve seen cases where women are convicted and given a couple hundred hours (or less) of community service. Others are convicted on capital murder charges. There’s lots o freasons for that: the indictment, prosecutorial zeal (or non-zeal) the judge, the media, individual state laws.

    In England neonaticide is considered as some sort of social dysfunction for want of a better word. Women who kill their newborns are considered troubled or driven by some outside force or mental illness. It may be an essentialist reaction the other way, too–women in their right minds would never kill their babies–but those who do are treated by authorities with a modicum of sympathy. New reports almost always feature police and medical and social workers asking mum to come forward She must be very scared, sad, We are concerned about her health She made need medical attention ,etc. In the US it’s string ’em up.

    But to come back to the prosecutor: there were similar statements from conservative OPPOSITION to baby dump laws who believe that they gave women–especially teenagers–a pass. If you can have a baby in secret and turn it in to the state it will encourage promiscuity. While I’m always happy to see opposition, that argument is delusional.

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