Waneta Hoyt Trial: 1995

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Waneta Hoyt Trial: 1995

Defendant: Waneta Hoyt
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Robert Miller and Raymond J. Urbanski
Chief Prosecutors: Robert J. Simpson and Margaret Drake
Judge: Vincent Sgueglia
Place: Owego, New York
Dates of Trial: March 30April 21, 1995
Verdict: Guilty on 5 counts of murder
Sentence: 75 years imprisonment (she died of cancer after serving 3)

SIGNIFICANCE: The Waneta Hoyt case challenged a long-standing medical theory about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and raised questions about other parents who used the disease as a cover for murdering their own children.

Ayoung child, typically between two and six months old, dies without warning during the night. The baby does not cry out in pain or torment. If an autopsy is performed, the doctor finds no clinical reason for the death. The likely conclusion: the child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Reports of unexplained "crib deaths" date back hundreds of years, but the term "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" was not widely usedor systematically studieduntil the 1960s.

Waneta Hoyt and her husband Tim seemed particularly hard hit by SIDS. The couple lived in the rural town of Newark Valley, New York. As far back as 1965, Mrs. Hoyt had stood by helplessly as each of her five small children died of SIDS. (A sixth, adopted child, survived infancy.) The youngest was just three months old at the time of death; the oldest just under three years.

The Hoyts' tragedy caught the attention of Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, a local pediatrician studying SIDS. In a famous 1972 article, Steinschneider chronicled the deaths of the last two Hoyt children and introduced the notion that SIDS resulted from a hereditary form of apnea, a condition that cuts off a person's breathing during sleep. Steinschneider's theory and strategies for combating the problem gradually became accepted in pediatric medicine. However, years later, the details of the Hoyt infant deaths began arousing legal suspicions.

Searching for the Truth

In the early 1980s, William Fitzpatrick, an assistant district attorney in upstate New York, investigated a crime of infanticide. He worked on the case with Dr. Linda Norton, a Texas medical examiner.

Norton was familiar with Steinschneider's groundbreaking articleand doubted its conclusions. She handed the article to Fitzpatrick, telling him to read it and saying, "You may decide you have a serial killer here."

Like Norton, Fitzpatrick was struck by the extraordinary odds of one family having five children die of SIDS. The article did not mention the Hoyts by name, printing only their initials, but Fitzpatrick was able to uncover their identity. In 1992, now the district attorney for Onondaga County, he located the Hoyts in nearby Tioga County. He shared his suspicions with his counterpart there, Robert J. Simpson. After studying old medical records, Simpson concluded with Fitzpatrick that Waneta Hoyt had most likely killed her children.

Finally questioned so many years later by state police, Hoyt admitted her crimes, offering details of how she smothered each of the children. "They just kept crying and crying." Hoyt said, " and I just kept squeezing and squeezing and squeezing." On March 23, 1994, Hoyt was charged with 10 counts of second-degree murder5 for intent to kill and 5 for "creating a grave risk of death."

The Trial

During the opening arguments at Hoyt's trial, the prosecution revealed her confession about the murders. The defense countered that Hoyt's statements had been made under duress, and she had since recanted her confession. As the trial progressed, the prosecutors introduced testimony from nurses who had worked with the Hoyt children and had had suspicions about their deaths. Another prosecution witness was Dr. Michael M. Braden, a forensic pathologist who had examined the bodies of the children after they were exhumed prior to the trial. According to Braden, all five children were deliberately suffocated. He said, "There are no natural conditions, including sudden infant death, that can explain the deaths."

The main witness for the defense was the renowned SIDS expert himself, Dr. Steinschneider. By now he was president of the American SIDS Institute in Atlanta. Steinschneider testified that the deaths of the two Hoyt children he had reviewed were consistent with SIDS. But under cross-examination, he stated that he did not know how thoroughly the police had searched for evidence of foul play. "For all I know," Steinschneider admitted, "they could have been suffocated."

Steinschneider's theory of SIDS had been under close scrutiny since Hoyt's arrest in 1994. Some doctors, such as Dr. Linda Norton, believed the sleep-apnea theory diverted attention away from parents who had killed their children and then claimed SIDS was to blame. Some medical examiners and prosecutors believed that as many as 20 percent of the approximately 7,500 SIDS deaths reported annually resulted from other causesincluding murder. Cases similar to Hoyt's had been reported before and at the time of her trial. But many legal and medical officials also stressed that children did indeed die of SIDS, and most parents of dead infants were not killers.

In the end, the jury believed Hoyt's original confession and the other evidence against her were sufficient proof to find Hoyt guilty of murdering all five children. Judge Vincent Sgueglia sentenced her to 15 years for each murder. Already ill at the time of her trial, Hoyt served just 3 of her 75-year sentence, dying of pancreatic cancer in September 1998. Her trial and conviction revealed the necessity for legal and medical officials to look beyond SIDS when faced with the seemingly inexplicable death of a child.

i>Michael Burgan

Suggestions for Further Reading

Eftimiades, Cynthia Sanz Maria. "A Mother's Fatal Embrace." People (November 9, 1995): 103.

Firstman, Richard and Jamie Talan. The Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine and High-Stakes Science. New York: Bantam Books, 1997.

Gruson, Lindsey. "A 25-Year Trail to Five Murder Charges." New York Times (March 29, 1994): Bl.

Judson, George. "Mother Guilty in the Killings of Five Babies" New York Times (April 22, 1995): 25.

Steinberg, Jacques. "Pathologist Says Five Children Died of Deliberate Suffocation." New York Times (April 7, 1995): B5.

. "Defense Begins for Mother in Sudden Deaths of Five Children." New, York Times (April 11, 1995): B4.

Toufexis, Anastasia. "When Is Crib Death a Cover for Murder?" Time (April 11, 1994): 6.