Metro

Child death law dates back to 1696

A baby-safe haven sign stands at the entrance to the Blackstone police station.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
A baby-safe haven sign stands at the entrance to the Blackstone police station.

Concealing the death of a child, one of the charges facing Blackstone mother Erika L. Murray, was added to the Massachusetts law books in 1696 and is the subject of a proposed update on Beacon Hill.

State Representative Colleen Garry said today she filed a proposal to update the law because the current penalty is so insignificant — $100 fine or a maximum of one year in jail. Garry said she wants to see it increased to five years behind bars.

Garry said she was spurred to action by the Casey Anthony prosecution in Florida, where a mother was accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter.

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The child’s remains went undiscovered for so long authorities could not firmly establish a cause of death, and Anthony was acquitted of first degree murder.

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“The fact is that somebody could potentially hide the murder of a child by hiding the body for so long,’’ said Garry, an attorney and Democratic representative for Dracut. “Even if it’s an accidental death, people need to know about it. We shouldn’t be finding bodies any length of time afterward.’’

She added, “People need to be open and honest for the child’s sake.’’

In a Northern Illinois University Law Review article published in 1998, the Massachusetts law of “concealment of death of a child born out wedlock’’ was described as a continuation of English common law dating back centuries that made its way to New England.

In cases where an infant was found dead, English juries were often unwilling to convict the mother of murder, which was a capital offense, leading to the creation of the “concealment’’ prosecution as a means of punishment short of a death sentence.

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The article noted that with statutes like the Massachusetts one, the state “can still punish the defendant without having to prove that the infant was born alive, an element that can be difficult for the state to prove and is a common defense used by those accused.”

Infanticide was a common practice in the Western world, according to the article, until Roman Emperor Constantine in 318 declared the murder of a child was as serious a crime as murdering one’s father.

The article did not address why the Massachusetts law refers to children “born out of wedlock.”

Garry said she did not expect Beacon Hill lawmakers to address her proposal this year, but added that she will try again in the next legislative session that begins in January.

“Obviously, we will be taking a look at it now’’ following the horrific discoveries in Blackstone, Garry said.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.