Seattle woman arrested 23 years after infant found dead

Posted at 7:17 AM, March 15, 2021 and last updated 2:05 PM, June 21, 2023

SEATTLE (AP) — The mother of a newborn found dead in a trash can at a convenience store in Seattle more than 23 years ago was arrested after she was identified using genetic genealogy, authorities said.

The mother was 27 when the baby was born, The Seattle Times reported. The statute of limitations for manslaughter is three years, which has run out, and there is no statute for felony murder, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors are expected to make a charging decision by Tuesday. Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said the woman, whose name has not been released, is expected to appear in court for the first time on Friday. She was being held at King County Jail.

The infant, known as Baby Boy Doe, was discovered Nov. 20, 1997. The King County medical examiner’s office determined the baby was born alive two days earlier and ruled his death a homicide.

Authorities said the woman was found after a genealogist uploaded previously unknown DNA to a public genealogy site and then built a family tree to identify possible suspects — a method used to identify suspects in decades-old homicide and rape cases.

Police detective Rolf Norton said genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter of Monterey, California, who helped crack the Golden State Killer case in 2018, worked on the Seattle case. She and other genealogists were able to develop the mother’s DNA profile with a placental blood clot found at the scene.

Norton declined to talk about the case in detail because the woman has not been charged, but did note that there were multiple abandonment cases in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Washington state enacted its Safe Haven law in 2002, which provides legal amnesty to parents who surrender infants no older than 72 hours to a staff member in hospital emergency rooms, fire stations and rural health clinics.

Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, has researched legal and ethical issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, including neonaticide, the term for infant homicide within the first day of life.

She said the crime is marked by extremely impulsivity — not a deliberate, premediated strategy — and that people who abandon their babies tend to be “socially isolated, marginalized and vulnerable women who find themselves paralyzed in the face of pregnancy.”

“My sense is these cases look a lot like manslaughter,” Oberman said. “I believe the taking of a human life necessitates a criminal-justice response, but I think the over-prosecution of these cases with the highest possible charges is irresponsible.”