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'Someone stop me': Exhausted mom on trial in Osaka for baby's death by falling

An investigator examines the stairway of a municipal housing complex in the city of Osaka's Hirano Ward on Jan. 19, 2020, following an incident where a baby fell to her death. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)

OSAKA -- Her sleepless night ended. Dressed in her indoor clothes, a woman went outside one winter morning carrying her 7-month-old daughter. She arrived at a municipal housing complex several minutes away on foot, and rode an elevator to the top floor. She stood on the landing of its outdoor stairway, and thrust her arms beyond the handrail, her daughter still in her grasp. "Someone stop me," she screamed inside. But the situation was no longer in her control. The small body slipped from her hands.

    The 37-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of murdering her youngest child at the municipal housing complex in Hirano Ward, Osaka, west Japan, in January 2020. She was released before the court ruling, and pledged to "bear the responsibility of the crime for life" in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun. At the time of the incident, she was raising the family's four children by herself, and had reached her limits both physically and mentally. But why did this tragedy occur?

    The woman lived in a house with her husband in his 40s, her mother-in-law in her 70s, and four children -- aged between 7 months old and 11 years old. The woman has a moderate intellectual disability, and was not adept at expressing her feelings, calculating and cleaning. But she committed herself to raising the children with the support of her mother-in-law.

    Her oldest son also has an intellectual disability, and her second eldest daughter suffers from an intractable disease and had been temporarily hospitalized. The woman traveled by train nearly 40 minutes one way to bring pumped breast milk to her daughter in hospital. She gave her all to provide her children with love.

    With the birth of her youngest daughter in June 2019, her parenting duties increased. "When my second and third daughters began to cry at the same time, things would get out of hand. I couldn't sleep, and got terrible headaches," she reflected. She started eating less and soon lost weight. In October, she revealed to a public health nurse at her ward's health and welfare center that she was "worn out, and already dizzy."

    A municipal housing complex where a baby fell to her death is seen in the city of Osaka's Hirano Ward on Jan. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)

    Things got worse once 2020 started. Four of the family caught the flu, including her husband and mother-in-law, and she was effectively left handling parenting and chores alone. On Jan. 16, 2020, she spoke to the local public health and welfare center about securing a place for her youngest daughter at a temporary care facility. Her husband also made an inquiry with a private infant home on Jan. 18 that year to ask whether it could temporarily take in the girl, but there were no open spots until the following week. "If only this child wasn't here," the mother began to feel intensely. The incident happened the next day.

    Ambulance sirens echoed throughout the residential area on Sunday at around 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 19. The woman's youngest daughter was found collapsed in a park in the municipal housing complex, and soon confirmed dead. Osaka Prefectural Police arrested the woman on suspicion of murder after she contacted police herself and said, "A child fell." Although she initially denied dropping her child from the stairs, she later admitted to the allegations and stated, "I feel so much regret and remorse."

    Upon hearing about the incident from his wife, the husband immediately rushed to the hospital. He described his daughter as looking as if she were sleeping, and that her hands still felt soft when he held them. The mother's memory of the incident was apparently unclear.

    That day, the husband received a call from the infant home and was told that they would accept consultations about her admission, but he was forced to tell them, "It's fine now, my daughter has passed away."

    The woman's mental evaluation under detention lasted around five months. She never forgot to send home letters two or three times a week, in which she asked questions such as "How are the children doing?" and, "Have they been going to school?"

    On Jan. 18, 2021, about a year after the incident, her lay judge trial began in the Osaka District Court. Her face was emaciated. She admitted to the indictment charges, her head hung low throughout. When a prosecutor presented a picture of her youngest daughter smiling, she covered her face with both hands and let out stifled sobs.

    Investigators examine a municipal housing complex in the city of Osaka's Hirano Ward on Jan. 19, 2020, following an incident where a baby fell to her death. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)

    A doctor responsible for her mental evaluation appeared in court during the second trial. The doctor emphasized the influence of the woman's intellectual disability and an adjustment disorder stemming from parenting, and said, "She was in a state where she was at the edge of emotional stability, and was prone to taking sudden actions." Regarding her state of mind at the time of the incident, the woman reportedly told the doctor, "I was so scared that I was shivering. I wanted someone to stop me. I tried to jump off myself, but couldn't from fear."

    Prosecutors acknowledged that the woman was of diminished capacity due to parenting burdens as well as her disability, and requested a 5-year prison sentence. The defense called for a suspended sentence, and the trial concluded.

    On Jan. 27, eight days after the hearings wrapped up, the woman was released following the district court's decision to cancel her detention -- an unusual move for a murder case. When she returned home that night, her three children apparently rushed to her and didn't let go of her hand.

    Was the incident preventable? The woman appears to have consulted with a local public health nurse. Ward officials did not reveal specifics on the grounds of personal information protection, but they indicated their view that they "took necessary and appropriate measures."

    During the interview with the Mainichi, the woman reflected, "I tried to take care of everything alone, and avoided help from those around me. I couldn't see that I was reaching my breaking point." Her husband said with regret, "I shoulder the same responsibility for the crime. I was caught up in work and couldn't take part in parenting."

    The picture of their youngest daughter is placed in the house's family altar along with flowers. The family said that they offer prayers every day while telling the child, "I'm sorry," and "Please keep watching over us." The court ruling will be handed down on Feb. 18.

    (Japanese original by Takumi Fujikawa, Osaka City News Department)

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