I have previously written about the horrific crime that was Nixzmary Brown’s murder. Her killer and stepfather Cesar Rodriguez got the maximum sentence of 26 1/3 to 29 years in prison for the crime of which he was accused, manslaughter of the seven-year-old girl.
Now Nixzmary’s mother Nixzaliz Santiago has also been sentenced in the crime. To 40 to 40 1/3 years in prison. Or at least 14 years longer than her actual killer.
How do we explain this? Well, the NY TImes actually does a pretty good job:
As the prosecutor asked the judge to impose a long prison sentence, she used the word twice: “Mommy.”
The “mommy” she was referring to was Nixzaliz Santiago, who last week received a sentence of 40 1/3 to 43 years in prison, the maximum term, for her part in the death of her 7-year-old daughter, Nixzmary Brown.
The prosecutor, Ama Dwimoh, said Ms. Santiago was the “one person” who the little girl should have been able to count on. “She called her ‘Mommy,’ ” Ms. Dwimoh told the judge. The word weighed heavily on a trial already filled with horrific details of abuse.
[. . .]
Justice DiMango said that Ms. Santiago, who was convicted of manslaughter and two counts of assault but acquitted of murder, had ignored her lawful obligation as a parent to try to save the dying child. But the wide gap between the sentences raised questions about whether Ms. Santiago shouldered an extra burden as she faced judge and jury: the duty to be a good mother.
[. . .]
One of Ms. Santiago’s lawyers, Kathleen M. Mullin, called the sentence “fundamentally unfair” and said she had expected at most a sentence of 32 years — maximum terms for the manslaughter charge and one of the assault charges, with the sentence for the other assault to run concurrently. (Mr. Rodriguez was not charged with assault.)
That’s right — what it comes down to is that Ms. Santiago “ignored her lawful obligation as a parent,” even though as her stepfather, Mr. Rodriguez was Nixzmary’s parent, too. Oh, and Rodriguez wasn’t charged with assault even though there’s evidence that he assaulted and starved the girl for an extended period. The mother was.
So let’s be a bit more accurate: Ms. Santiago was punished more harshly because she was the girl’s mommy.
The article further examines the bias:
Ms. Mullin said that as the mother of the victim, Ms. Santiago was subjected to added scrutiny. “It’s part of the reason this is so upsetting,” Ms. Mullin said. “We subscribe to these biblical ideas of instinctual mothering.”
B. Keith Crew, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Northern Iowa who has researched gender and racial differences in criminal sentencing, says that women who are not perceived as good mothers often “get the hammer” in sentencing.
“There’s a sacredness about the role of mother,” he said. “When a woman is not fulfilling her role, it shocks the conscience, more than if she commits a crime. If she was prostituting herself or dealing drugs or stealing to feed, clothe and shelter her children, people would be more sympathetic.”
Details of Ms. Santiago’s troubled past — her learning disabilities, her abusive relationships and her miscarriage shortly before Nixzmary died — have caused some who followed the trial to wonder about her capacity to help her daughter.
Awilda Cordero, a victims’ rights advocate, said that Ms. Santiago herself had been abused by Mr. Rodriguez and feared him. “She didn’t know how to protect this child,” she added.
Ms. Abdel-Dayem and an alternate juror, Lenore Habersham, said that a videotaped statement Ms. Santiago gave to the police was the most compelling evidence against her.
“She was so nonchalant about her daughter’s death,” Ms. Abdel-Dayem said. “That really got us, that she seemed so uncaring.”
In other words, Santiago was punished not so much for harming her daughter, and not for causing her death because she’s not the one who actually killed her — Santiago was sentenced to 40 years in prison, much longer than the man who did kill her, because she didn’t live up to our expectations of a mother.
And damn right, that ought to be of concern to us.
Santiago may not be the world’s most sympathetic woman (though I certainly do think that the evidence that she herself was being abused by Rodriguez is compelling). That doesn’t make the danger of her sentencing to women all over this country any less real. And it doesn’t make the injustice in her case any less real, either.
If Santiago is guilty of everything that she has been accused of, if she did encourage Rodriguez to beat Nixzmary and even enjoy it or beat the girl herself, those are clearly terrible and perhaps unforgivable crimes. They deserve punishment, surely. But they do not deserve punishment more harsh than that for murder. And encouraging someone to be violent, though inexcusable, should never be considered a more serious crime than actually doing the violence.
So imagine my horror when I read Genia at SistersTalk agreeing with the sentencing:
Should Nixzaliz Santiago be held more responsible than the man who delivered the fatal blow? Yes. I believe mothers should be held to a higher standard, but not because I believe mothers are nurturers by nature. I don’t believe that at all. Andrea Yates, Susan Smith Deanna Laney, and Sivananthi Elango seriously lack the nurturer gene.
With rights come responsibilities. In this country, women have the right to decide if they want to bear a child; therefore, women should be held more accountable for the fate of that child after it’s born. I’m sure lots of my fellow feminists would disagree with that. I don’t understand how any woman who fights for exclusive rights to her own body can then reject the responsibilities that come with those rights.
This pissed me off for quite a few days, so much so that it took me a long time to write about. It’s just so patently wrong that I don’t know where to begin.
So let us begin here. It is wrong for a man to beat his wife, for numerous reasons. It is wrong because it is violence. It is wrong because it is a betrayal of trust. It is wrong because it is the abuse of a power imbalance created by our society between men and women and an effort to exercise and expand that power. And it is wrong, in a large majority of cases, because there is a significant difference in body stature and strength that makes it very difficult for the victim to adequately defend herself.
In other words, it is wrong for all of the same basic reasons that it is wrong to beat your child, or your stepchild. Violence. Betrayal. Power imbalance. Strength imbalance.
But one of the things that does not make it fundamentally wrong to beat your wife? One of those things is the fact that you consciously chose to get married. And it certainly wouldn’t be so in a society where many people didn’t have a choice to not get married, just like many women don’t actually have the access to abortion.
See, I don’t know if Nixzmary was a wanted child. I have no clue. Neither do you. But I do know that we can never use “she made the conscious decision to have a child” without all of the facts in a society where abortion is often inaccessible to those who most need it.
And I do know that even if abortion were readily accessible, it would still be irrelevant. Because just like beating your wife in an arranged marriage is no more right, choosing to have the child isn’t what makes beating the child wrong. Nixzmary’s death would be no less wrong if Santiago had wanted an abortion and wasn’t able to obtain one. It would be no less wrong if Rodriguez had never wanted children and felt trapped with them when he formed a relationship with Santiago. It just plain wouldn’t. It would be just as wrong, because a little girl would be just as dead. And the abuse would be just as wrong for the reasons listed above: violence, betrayal of trust, and abuses of power and strength imbalances. The reasons, they might make a big difference in terms of preventing such tragedies in the future. But they don’t make a lick of difference to a dead or abused kid.
Santiago could be guilty of every charge laid against her, and she would still not be more to blame for Nixzmary’s death than Rodriguez. Because while she may have been able to defend her daughter, and while she may have even encouraged her beatings, she didn’t kill her. Plain and simple. She didn’t kill her, and she is therefore not the primary culprit. She’s certainly not the primary culprit just because she’s Nixzmary’s mother instead of her father.
And to argue otherwise? That’s fucking sexist.