I . . . Shot My Son

Everyone Agrees that Shantae Molina killed her baby. The only question is: Was it murder?

Reminded of Guest's damning early assertion that Molina had placed the muzzle against her baby's head, the former homicide detective recoiled. "What a mistake that was," said Holder. "It was definitely not a contact wound. It happened just like Shantae said it did."

The act of a mother purposely killing her offspring seems so unnatural that some experts have dubbed it the Medea syndrome, after the ancient Greek legend of a wife who killed her sons to spite their unfaithful father. The issue gained more recent attention in 1994 when Susan Smith, a South Carolina housewife, drowned her two young boys in a lake and then told police that a black man had kidnapped her children. Two years later, a nationwide University of South Carolina study found that 80 percent of killer moms had suffered serious mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia when they committed their crimes. Experts in the field suggest there are generally four motives for this type of killing: pathological (the mother is mentally ill), retaliation (a child is killed to punish someone else, often the father), neonaticide (a child is killed upon birth by a reluctant mother) and accidental (physical abuse that unexpectedly results in death).

State of mind is a key element to any murder prosecution. So you might think that in more than 20 months of investigation and two major court hearings, detectives and prosecutors would have clearly spelled out a solid theory about Molina's motive for murdering her son. Noticeably, they have not. Dr. Martha Rogers, a clinical and forensic psychologist frequently used as an expert by the Orange County DA, is testifying for the defense. All of the people who spoke or visited with Molina in the hours before the shooting emphatically say she was upbeat and, as normal, doting on Armani.

To address the issue of motive, Sheriff's deputies have engaged in what appears to be a sleight-of-hand. With all the Sherlock Holmes suspicion he could muster, Guest noted in the preliminary hearing that Molina had kept under her bed a newspaper clipping of a "woman who had been found guilty of murdering her baby." If presented at trial, that "evidence" will likely fail, too. The clipping wasn't a clipping but the entire Metro section of a then-year-and-a-half old LA Times. The paper was buried in a plastic purple binder that contained old school assignments. Lampel laughs at the detective's implication. "They are really stretching with that one," he said. "She had that paper because it was part of a homework assignment."

Those who have known Molina for years are incredulous that detectives have, in their view, demonized their friend.

"Shantae is a dear, dear person. Everybody who knows Shantae said that she was a great mother who loved her son," said Vince Rubalcava, a onetime neighbor who took camping trips with the family. "You should have seen Shantae with the baby. It was just beautiful."

Rubalcava believes that the prosecution's unconvincing motive theory painfully underscores what he sees as shoddy police work.

He said, "There is no motive because there was no murder."

That point was not lost on former San Bernardino County homicide prosecutor Scott Ghormley. Now in private practice in Newport Beach, Ghormley was awarded a lapel pin for obtaining high murder-conviction rates while a prosecutor. But he's so incensed by the prosecution of Molina that he recently volunteered to assist Lampel without compensation.

"A cold chill sweeps over me when Ithink of this case,"said Ghormley. "The prosecution has abused its discretion and lost any touch of humanity. It is in my estimation—and Ifirmly believe in law enforcement—an arrogance of power."

On a late June afternoon, Molina rocked herself gently back and forth at the colonial-style wooden table in her parents' spacious kitchen. Her face, though unsmiling, looked as fresh as a newborn's. Her deep brown eyes, however, could have been mistaken for those of a woman twice her age. Family and friends moved around her, but she stared into middle ground without blinking. A noisy floor fan in another room slapped unsuccessfully at the muggy air while the diminutive woman—she's 5 feet tall and just 90 pounds—held her tiny arms tightly across her stomach as if chilled. When she finally spoke, she talked optimistically of plans to become an ultrasound technician in a hospital. A warm, excited smile appeared on her face as she said, "I have always wanted to get into the medical field."

She says she had hoped that by her mid-20s she would own a house for herself and Armani. "I wanted to be a successful single parent, able to buy my son all the things he wanted in the world," she said. "I couldn't wait for him to be able to walk, to go to school and to eat his first cheeseburger."

Asked if Armani spoke during his short life, Molina—who was just feet away from a candle-lit hallway shrine erected in her son's memory—smiled as if remembering happier days. "He said 'mum' to me several times," recalled Molina. "He was a perfect baby. He was always happy and laughing, a great baby. I would never purposely hurt him. He was the best thing that ever happened in my life. . . . Why are they doing this to me?"

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