By Mark Gado
Mothers who Kill
When Susan Smith murdered
her two children in South Carolina in October 1994, people were
horrified that a mother could do such a thing to her own children. The
public anger directed at Smith intensified when it was realized she
led police on a fictitious manhunt for suspects that did not exist and
played on media sympathy for her loss. Smith blamed her behavior on
troubles with her current boyfriend, who did not want the
responsibility of her children.
In Texas, a deeply
disturbed Andrea Yates, 36, drowned her five young children, including
a 6-month-old infant, in the family's bathtub. She then called her
husband and told him, "It's time. I did it." Yates defense team said
later in court that a severe post-partum depression triggered her
It is a crime that is unthinkable for most people
because the thought of losing one's own child is a life-long
subconscious fear for parents. That may help explain why there is
little public sympathy for one who commits this type of crime. Though
courts may be willing to listen to explanations from the accused,
usually there is no forgiveness. Smith received a life sentence
without parole while Yates was sentenced to life with a chance at
parole in the year 2040. A cursory review of such cases shows a
similar pattern of long prison sentences. One of the most
extraordinary cases of child murder in 20th century America took place
in Schenectady, N.Y. But unlike the Smith and Yates cases in which the
victims were killed during one tragic incident, these events took
place over a period of nearly fourteen years. On February 5, 1986,
Marybeth Tinning, 43, a local housewife and former school bus
operator, was arrested and charged with the murder of her 4-month-old
daughter, Tami Lynne. As crime stories go, Mrs. Tinning's tale would
have barely made the 6 o'clock news.
But Marybeth Tinning was a familiar sight in
Schenectady's trauma centers. She usually came running into one of the
city's emergency rooms, confused and hysterical, typically with one of
her babies cradled in her arms, either dead or near dead. The medical
staff knew Marybeth well. Some hated her. Others felt great sorrow and
pity for her. That's because from January 3, 1972, the day her
daughter Jennifer died, until December 20, 1985, when Tami Lynne was
found dead in her home, all nine of Marybeth Tinning's children died
suddenly and usually without any rational explanation.
And no one knew why.
Welcome to Duanesburg, town
signMarybeth Roe was born on September 11, 1942, in Duanesburg, a
small town located on State Route 20 about ten miles south of
Schenectady, New York. She had one younger brother and together they
attended Duanesburg High School where she was nothing more than an
average student. Her father, Alton Roe, worked as a press operator in
nearby General Electric, the area's largest employer. Marybeth once
claimed that when she was a child, her father abused her. During a
police interview in 1986, she told one investigator that her father
had beaten her and locked her in a closet. But later during court
testimony, she denied that her father had bad intentions.
"My father hit me with a flyswatter," she told the court, "because he
had arthritis and his hands were not of much use. And when he locked
me in my room I guess he thought I deserved it."
Though Mary Beth aspired to go to college upon graduation, it never
happened. Over the next few years, she worked in a series of low
paying, unskilled jobs that did not offer much of a future.
Eventually, she became a nurse's aide at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady
where she performed her duties in an adequate manner. In 1963, she met
Joe Tinning on a blind date with some friends. He was a shy young man
with a kindly disposition who had never been in trouble with the
police. The couple got along reasonably well and in the spring of
1965, they married. Joe was a quiet man who worked for General
Electric, not prone to outbursts of temper and seemed to take life in
As an adult, Marybeth was a woman of average
appearance. Photographs of her that appeared in newspapers over
several years, show a person who was attractive to the camera at
times. On other occasions, she did not fare as well. She was 5-feet
4-inches tall, had blue eyes, blonde hair and a trim, though not a
sexy figure. Marybeth kept her hair short and maintained a neat,
In almost all aspects, Joe and Marybeth were like
many other young married couples in that part of New York. They worked
hard, tried to make a decent living and build a better life. Except
for one strange and persistent problem: Their children began to die.
Parade of Death
A mysterious set of coincidences
surrounded the deaths of Marybeth's nine healthy children over a
period of 14 years. It wasn't that no one had noticed that all of her
children had died. Everyone noticed. But few people, very few, knew
all the details of all the deaths. The Department of Social Services,
the Medical Examiner's Office, several police departments, friends,
neighbors, family and even the local funeral home had, at one time or
another, registered their shock and disbelief at the odd calamity that
had befallen the Tinning family. It is true not everyone thought it
was a tragedy. Some saw the deaths as questionable and even made
official reports of their suspicions. But in each and every case, no
decisive action was taken against either Joe or Marybeth. There was
simply no conclusive evidence that anything was amiss.
In the first five years of her marriage to Joe, the couple had two
children, Barbara and Joseph Jr. In October 1971, Marybeth's father
died of a sudden heart attack. In December that same year, Marybeth
gave birth to a third child, Jennifer. On January 3, 1972, Jennifer
died in a Schenectady hospital of severe infection, which was
diagnosed as meningitis. At that time, most investigators did not
believe that this death was suspicious because Jennifer was sick at
birth and never brought home. The successive deaths of her father and
her baby may have irritated Marybeth's fragile mental condition. Never
a happy, well-adjusted adult and frequently described as "strange" by
many of her friends and family members, Marybeth seemed to become even
more distant after Jennifer's death (Egginton).
Seventeen days later, on January 20, 1972, Marybeth took Joseph Jr.,
age 2, to the Ellis Hospital emergency room in Schenectady. She
reported that he had some type of seizure. The child was kept under
observation for a time. When doctors could not find anything wrong
with him, Joseph Jr. was sent home. Several hours later, Marybeth
returned to the ER with little Joey. This time, he was dead. She told
doctors that she had placed him in bed and returned later to find him
tangled in the sheets and his body was blue.
taking a nap," Marybeth told detectives in a later statement, "it was
close to his birthday and he had slept, taken a nap, slept unusually
long. Unfortunately, I did not go in to check on him and when I did,
he appeared to be having respiratory problems of which I did not
cause" (Tinning). His death was listed as "unknown" and no autopsy was
Barely six weeks later, Marybeth was back
at the same emergency room with her daughter, Barbara, age 4. She told
the staff that the little girl had gone into convulsions. Though the
doctors wanted the child to remain overnight, Marybeth insisted on
taking her home. Several hours later, like the incident with Joseph
Jr., she returned with Barbara who was unconscious. The child later
died in a hospital bed from unknown causes. When police asked Marybeth
about this incident years later, she barely remembered it.
"Had a daughter," she told investigators, "while we
were sleeping, she called out to me and I went in and she was having a
convulsion. I guess I don't even remember whether ... I think maybe we
just ... I don't remember whether we took her by ambulance or whether
we took her, but anyway we got there and they did whatever they did."
A rare, little understood condition, known as Reyes
Syndrome, was suspected in Barbara's death, but never proven.
All three of Marybeth's children were dead. They
had died within 90 days of each other, a highly unusual occurrence,
even if it were Reyes Syndrome or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
The deaths came as a surprise to everyone because up to the time of
their demise; Joseph Jr. and Barbara were healthy and active. Some
people thought it must be some type of genetic disorder that was
passed from mother to child. That's why people were even more
surprised when in the following year, Marybeth became pregnant with
her fourth child.
On Thanksgiving Day 1973, she gave birth to
Timothy, a small baby weighing just more than 5 pounds. Marybeth took
Timothy home two days later. On December 10, just three weeks after
birth, Timothy was brought back to the same hospital. He was dead.
Marybeth told doctors she found him lifeless in his crib. Again,
doctors found nothing medically wrong. Timothy seemed to be a normal
baby. His death was listed officially as SIDS.
Two years later, on March 30, 1975, Easter Sunday,
Marybeth gave birth to her fifth child, Nathan. One of Marybeth's
friends told author Joyce Egginton years later, "I can still see his
darling little face. His hair was so blonde, and with those big blue
eyes and the smile he was the most perfect specimen of a little baby
boy. He was just beautiful!"
On September 2, Marybeth showed up at St. Clare's
Hospital with little Nathan, only five months old, in her arms. He was
dead. She said she was driving in her car with the baby in the front
seat when she noticed that he had stopped breathing. Again, there
seemed to be no rational explanation for his death. Friends and
neighbors were aghast. Five of Marybeth's children had died. Four of
them were in her exclusive care when they simply stopped being
healthy. It was horrible, scary, incredible.
And there was more to come.
In 1978, Marybeth and her husband, Joe, made
arrangements to adopt a child. That same year, Marybeth became
pregnant again. But the Tinnings did not cancel the adoption. Instead,
they chose to keep both children. In August 1978, they received a baby
boy, Michael, from the adoption agency. Two months later, on October
29, Marybeth gave birth to her sixth offspring, a girl they named Mary
Frances. In January 1979, the baby apparently developed some type of
seizure, according to Marybeth. She rushed Mary Frances to St. Clare's
emergency room, which was directly across the street from her
apartment. A capable staff was able to revive her. They saved the
baby's life, but only for a time. On February 20, Marybeth came
running into the same hospital with Mary Frances cradled in her arms.
The baby, just four months old, was brain dead. The explanation was
the same as the others. Marybeth said she found the baby unconscious
and didn't know what had happened to her.
"There is really nothing to say," she told
investigators years later, "than I found her in her crib unresponsive.
I believe Joe was there. I can't remember." When an autopsy failed to
find a reason for the death, again it was attributed to SIDS.
Once Mary Frances was buried, Marybeth wasted no
time in getting pregnant. On November 19, that same year, she gave
birth to her seventh baby, Jonathan. In the meantime, the Tinnings
still cared for their adopted child, Michael, who was then 13 months
old and seemingly in good health. In March 1980, Marybeth showed up at
St. Clare's hospital with Jonathan unconscious. Like Mary Frances, he
was successfully revived. But because of the family history, he was
sent to Boston Hospital where he was thoroughly examined by the best
pediatricians and experts available. The doctors could find no valid
medical reason why the baby should simply stop breathing. Jonathan was
sent home with his mother. A few days later, Marybeth was back at St.
Clare's, this time with a brain dead Jonathan. He died on March 24,
Less than one year later, a pivotal event occurred
in the Tinning household. On the morning of March 2, 1981, Marybeth
showed up at her pediatrician's office with Michael, then two and a
half years old. He was wrapped in a blanket and unconscious. Marybeth
told the doctor that she could not wake Michael that morning and had
no idea what was wrong. She described what happened next to police,
"When I went in, in the morning to get him up and so we could go to
the doctors, he was not, I mean he was responsive to a point but he
was very limp and so on and so forth and so instead of calling an
ambulance, I went from our house...put him in the car, literally threw
him in the car and went to St. Clare's or I mean I went to Dr. Mele's
office and went in there and...by the time one of the doctors...I
guess took me and they said that he died of viral pneumonia"
When the doctor examined the boy, he was already
dead. Later, an autopsy found traces of pneumonia but not enough to
cause death. Since Michael was adopted, the long-suspected theory that
the deaths in the Tinning family had a genetic origin was discarded.
Something else was happening, only no one knew exactly what it was.
After Michael died, some of the nurses questioned Marybeth's odd
behavior. They noticed that when she first realized that Michael was
sick that morning, Marybeth could have easily walked across the street
to the emergency room to obtain medical care. In fact, she had done
just that when the others had died. But instead, she let hours pass
until the doctor's office opened for business.
It didn't make sense.
On August 22, 1985, Marybeth, then 42, gave birth
to her eighth child, Tami Lynne. Like all the other children in
Marybeth's care, she was destined to have a short life. On December
19, next-door neighbor, Cynthia Walter, who was also a practical
nurse, went shopping with Marybeth and later visited her home. "I
stayed for a few minutes and I wanted to hold Tami," Walter later
testified, "but Marybeth asked me to give the baby back, so I handed
her back and then I went home" (June 25, 1987, Albany Times Union)
Later that night, Walter received a frantic
telephone call from Marybeth. "Cynthia!" she said. "Get over here
right now!" When she went next door to see what was wrong, she found
little Tami Lynne lying on a changing table. "She wasn't moving,"
Walter said in court, "She was purple and I couldn't feel pulse or
respiration. She was not breathing" (ibid).
Walter tried to determine what was wrong, but there
was nothing obvious. At that point, an EMS team arrived at the scene.
They immediately scooped up Tami Lynne and sped off to the hospital.
When Cynthia asked Marybeth what happened, she told her neighbor that
Tami Lynne "was tangled in the blanket." At the emergency room, the
baby was pronounced dead. There was no cause of death apparent to the
emergency room staff, but since they were fully aware of the Tinning
family history, suspicion quickly settled upon Marybeth.
The next morning, Cynthia Walter visited the
Tinning home to see if she could be of any comfort to Marybeth, who
she assumed would be grieving over the death of her newborn daughter.
When she entered the house, Walter found Joe and Marybeth in the
kitchen. "They were sitting there, eating breakfast," Walter said
later in court, "and I told them where I'd be if they needed me" (June
25, 1987, Knickerbocker News). Later, after Tami Lynne's
funeral, Marybeth had people over her house for a brunch. Her demeanor
had changed noticeably. "She was smiling. She was eating, conversing
with everyone there," Walter testified, "didn't appear to be upset."
Sandy Roe, who was married to Marybeth's brother, later testified that
when she met with Marybeth after Tami Lynne's death, she didn't seem
upset. "We spoke about Christmas," Roe said, "She never really talked
about the death of the baby. It didn't seem to bother her."
But police, who had suspected something was amiss
at the Tinning household, went to interview Marybeth the same day.
Schenectady Police Investigator Bob Imfeld questioned her about Tami
Lynne's death and wanted details on how she died. "I know what you're
here for," Marybeth told him, "you're going to arrest me and take me
to jail" (Egginton). An autopsy failed to provide a valid medical
reason for the death of Tami Lynne and as a result, her demise was
listed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
As for Marybeth's husband, nothing seemed to bother
Joe. After each death, he would dress up in the same clothes and
dutifully go to the services at the same funeral parlor. He would sit
quietly at the wake without complaining and rarely make conversation
with anyone. "There were things to make me suspicious," he once said
to a Times Union reporter, "but you have to trust your
wife. She has her things to do and as long as she gets them done you
don't ask no questions" (Wallace).
The Genetic Factor
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was once
responsible for thousands of infant deaths each year in America.
Sometimes called "crib death," SIDS was a condition that was not well
understood in the 1970s. Since that time, a great deal of research has
been completed on this baffling affliction that takes the lives of
babies in their cribs without any warning. SIDS is a diagnosis of
exclusion. That means a determination of a SIDS death is usually made
after everything else is ruled out. Doctors felt sure that SIDS was
respiratory-related and that babies probably died from apnea, a sudden
and unexplained cessation of breathing. It usually occurs in infants
less than one year old and 80% of the victims are between two and four
months old. Most experts do not believe that a baby will suffocate
from being snarled in blankets and bed sheets.
Three of the Tinning babies were eventually
diagnosed as SIDS deaths. This should have been a cause for concern
since statistically, having two or three SIDS deaths in one family, is
nearly impossible because SIDS is not and never has been, genetic in
nature. Therefore, to have two occurrences in the same family is an
extreme abnormality. Dr. Michael Baden, former Chief Medical Examiner
of the City of New York, once said, "About three babies in a thousand
die from crib death. The odds against two crib deaths in one family
are enormous. The odds against three are astronomical" (Baden).
Over the years, several physicians investigated the
mystery in the Tinning home that led to the deaths of nine children.
Hereditary factors were strongly suspected, though the unexplained
death of Michael, the adopted son, lessened the possibility that there
was some type of "death gene" being passed on to the Tinning children.
Marybeth and Joseph also submitted to numerous medical examinations
over the years to search for a cause. This proved to be of little
value. Dr. Baden comments on the genetic theory in his book,
Confessions of a Medical Examiner, "There is no known genetic disease
that can cause sudden death in healthy children," he wrote.
Reyes Syndrome, an ill-defined condition that
causes the brain to swell, was also suspected, though this explanation
proved controversial and had little basis in fact. Reyes Syndrome
produces noticeable symptoms. Family and friends observed Marybeth's
children shortly before they died. With the exception of Jennifer, the
babies seemed healthy.
"Just about everyone who came into contact with the
family, the hospital, doctors, social service workers, was
suspicious," said Schenectady Police Chief Richard E. Nelson to the
press, "and communicated that suspicion to each other, many from the
very beginning" (Feb. 8, 1986, New York Times). However, the
problem wasn't that people weren't skeptical. The problem was that an
exact cause of death for the babies could not be determined. Without a
definitive ruling from the medical examiner's office a unified
investigative effort from the police department could not take place.
Dr. Robert Sullivan, the medical examiner of Schenectady was
interviewed by author Joyce Egginton for her book on the case, From
Cradle to Grave, "As I look back," he said, "the main problem is that
different persons or agencies knew about every one of these deaths,
but there was no centralized collection of information. It was all of
us together...and all of us failed" (Egginton).
Neighbors of the Tinnings knew all too well the
story of their dead children. "I knew she had lost five children and I
had my suspicions," one neighbor told the New York Times, "But
who was I to point a finger?" In between deaths, Marybeth was
frequently pregnant. When her baby was born, she was often seen
walking down the streets, pushing a baby carriage, chatting with
neighbors and fussing over the new addition to her strange and tragic
family. Another neighbor once told a reporter from the Albany Times
Union, "When the last child was born I asked myself, 'How long is
this one going to last.'"
"I'm Not a Good Mother"
After the death of Tami Lynne, police investigators
from several departments met in Albany to discuss the bizarre Tinning
family history. The deaths of the nine children, along with all the
existing evidence in each case, were carefully reviewed. Medical
reports were scrutinized, statements were reexamined and the available
autopsy reports were studied. Even with the mountain of paperwork
which spanned a period of 14 years, there was a consensus that a
successful prosecution still could not take place without additional
evidence. It was decided that Marybeth had to be interviewed again
regarding the death of Tami Lynne.
On the afternoon of February 4, 1986, Schenectady
police detective Bob Imfeld and State Police Investigator Joseph V.
Karas went to Tinning's home to ask her into police headquarters for
questioning. Of course, Marybeth was under no obligation since there
was no arrest warrant. The police told her that her cooperation was
needed if she wanted to clear up suspicions about her child's death.
Marybeth agreed, though she later said she felt compelled to go with
the police. Shortly after they arrived at the state police building at
Loudonville, New York, police said they advised her of the Miranda
warnings and she agreed to talk to investigators. At her trial,
Marybeth denied she ever received these warnings and said police
intimidated her. "She said she understood them," Karas later told the
court, "She said she'd waive them. She was willing to proceed without
them" (Dec. 9, 1986, Knickerbocker News).
Marybeth spoke about her life as a child and
growing up in Duanesburg. She stated that she grieved over the deaths
of each of her nine children and denied any role in what happened to
them. With the exception of Jennifer, whose cause of death was an
infection, she assumed her children died from SIDS or genetic
problems. Concerning Tami Lynne's death, Marybeth said that on the
night of December 19, 1985, she put her daughter to sleep in her crib
like she normally did. Tami Lynne was crying that night, she said,
which annoyed her because it made her feel like an unfit mother. She
said that she watched television for a while alone. When she returned
to check on the baby, Marybeth discovered she wasn't breathing. She
said she picked up the baby and made an attempt to revive her. But
nothing worked. Then she woke her husband and called for an ambulance.
But police didn't believe her story. It was too
much like the other seven deaths in the Tinning household, all of
which occurred when Marybeth was alone with the child. And SIDS deaths
only occur while the baby is in the crib. A baby does not die from
SIDS in its mother's arms. In fact, picking up a baby is the only
known way to prevent a sudden infant death. In all the cases, there
were no other witnesses. Most of the facts available on each death had
come from Marybeth. She told the initial story; she provided the
much-needed details; she described the last moments of each child's
life. It was all too convenient and there was no one to challenge her
version of events.
"I Smothered Them!"
The interview at police headquarters continued for
hours. During that time, investigators Imfeld and Karas touched upon
the deaths of all the children. Some events went back 14 years and the
details as remembered by Mary Beth did not coincide with the known
facts. But after so many deaths, it would be plausible that a mother
could be confused. At about two in the afternoon, another State Police
Investigator, William Barnes, who knew Marybeth Roe since childhood,
joined in the interview.
When Mary Beth was confronted with suspicions over
the deaths, she initially denied any malfeasance. "I didn't do it!"
she repeated. But after several hours of persistent questioning, Mary
Beth gave in. Though she continued to insist she never hurt most of
the children, she said Tami Lynne, Nathan and Timothy were the
exceptions. "I did not do anything to Jennifer, Joseph, Barbara,
Michael, Mary Frances, Jonathan," she said to Barnes and Karas, "Just
these three, Timothy, Nathan and Tami. I smothered them each with a
pillow because I'm not a good mother. I'm not a good mother because of
the other children" (Tinning).
During the interrogation, police had contacted her
husband, Joe, at his job at General Electric and he responded to state
police headquarters. When Marybeth was allowed to meet with him, they
had a brief conversation. Joe asked her to tell the truth whatever it
was. She began to cry while police stood nearby. After a few minutes,
Marybeth admitted the murders to Joe. "After 5 or 10 minutes," Joe
Tinning later said in court, "Marybeth said 'I killed Tami' very low.
She had to repeat it." Joe had no reaction to his wife's statements.
"I had withdrawn into myself," he said, "I was hearing but I wasn't
reacting" (July 3, 1987, Knickerbocker News). But investigators
had also heard Marybeth's damaging statements. State Police reports
written on the day of the interview describe the event: "[Joe Tinning]
also related the circumstances of the children's death generally and
then reported that during the conversation with his wife that day at
Loudonville she admitted that she had killed their children and that
now she is sorry" (New York State Police reports case No. 86-66 and
Police called in a stenographer and together, while
investigators asked questions and Marybeth responded, they compiled a
36-page statement. In it, Marybeth admits to suffocating three
children but continued to insist that she never harmed the others. She
told police that on the night of Tami Lynne's death, she was sleeping
on the living room couch. "I was about to doze off when Tami woke up
and started to cry," Marybeth said. "I got up and went to her crib and
tried to do something with her to get her to stop crying. I finally
used the pillow from my bed and put it over her head. I held it until
she stopped crying." Then she took the pillow, she said, and put it on
the couch to convince Joe she had been sleeping. "I screamed for Joe
and he woke up," she said, "I told Joe Tami wasn't breathing...I did
do CPR, stupid as it sounds, but I knew that she wasn't alive
anymore." When she was asked why she killed Tami, Marybeth responded,
"Because she was always crying and I couldn't do anything right"
At the end of the statement, Marybeth wrote: "I did
not do anything to Jennifer, Joseph, Barbara, Michael, Mary Frances,
Jonathan, Just these three, Timothy, Nathan and Tami. I smothered them
each with a pillow because I'm not a good mother. I'm not a good
mother because of the other children. Marybeth Tinning 1-4-86 8 pm"
(New York State Police reports case # 86-66 and 113). Later, she was
arrested and formally charged with the murder of Tami Lynne.
"Everyone Did Their Jobs"
After the arrest of Marybeth Tinning, there was a
lot of finger pointing in the Schenectady community. There was already
a great deal of media attention on the case and the story of the nine
dead children was well known. It was reported in the nation's
newspapers and the television show "60 Minutes" broadcast a segment on
the case. New York Times reporter Amy Wallace wrote, "There
were six autopsies, but never any signs of abuse. There were whispers
and suspicions. But somehow no one not the police, the coroner,
doctors, social workers or neighbors, not even Mrs. Tinning's
husband-detected something evil in the strange pattern of deaths."
Part of the problem in the investigation was the
lack of communication between the medical examiner's office and
doctors who handled deaths of the Tinning babies that were not
autopsied. Some of the deaths, like Barbara in 1972 and Michael in
1981, had a valid cause listed on the death certificate. If a death
can not be characterized as a homicide, then, theoretically, a crime
has not been committed. "Everyone did their jobs," Schenectady Police
Chief Richard E. Nelson told the press, "but when you have a
legitimate cause of death, where do you go from there?" (Feb. 8, 1986,
New York Times). But some of the other Tinning children had
died from unknown causes, which doctors listed as SIDS. Though police
had made some inquiries in those cases as well, their investigation
Soon after Marybeth's arrest, police and the D.A.'s
office decided to take the investigation a step further. On May 29,
1986, under the direction of Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Thomas Oram,
chief of pathology at Schenectady's Ellis Hospital, the bodies of
three of Tinning's children were exhumed from the Most Holy Redeemer
Cemetery in Schenectady County. They were transported to the Medical
Examiner's Office for further testing. Defense Attorney Paul M.
Callahan told the press, "My client was bothered, upset by them
exhuming the bodies" (May 29, 1986, Knickerbocker News). He
asked the court for a postponement on Marybeth's appearance because,
"She wouldn't be in the best condition to be in court" (ibid). But it
really didn't matter. Confusion over the location of the gravesites
resulted in the exhumation of the wrong corpse in one case. The other
two bodies were too decomposed for a conclusive examination.
In the meantime, Joe Tinning, Marybeth's
unflappable husband, told reporters, "I wouldn't like them to do
anymore, but I guess that's their prerogative." One of the doctors
that performed the autopsy on Tami Lynne, Dr. Oram, took notice of Joe
Tinning's apparent detachment from his family. In a profile that he
prepared on the parents of the dead child, Dr. Oram described the
father as somewhat distant. "The father seems to have shown little
curiosity in the circumstances of all these children's deaths," he
said. "He has difficulty in remembering all their names" (Egginton).
"I Just Became Scared!"
Marybeth Tinning was indicted for the murder of
only one of her children, Tami Lynne. Police and Schenectady County
District Attorneys Office felt that was the single case in which they
had the strongest evidence. Her admissions on February 4 to police
investigators were crucial and would certainly be persuasive to any
jury that heard them. In December 1986, pre-trial hearings took place
in county court to determine the admissibility of those statements at
a later trial. For the very first time, the public would hear Marybeth
Tinning's explanation of what happened in her household where so many
babies had died.
State Police Investigator Joseph Karas testified
that Marybeth came to police headquarters voluntarily and was not
under arrest at the time. "She said she'd talk but didn't want to sign
anything," he said in court (Dec. 10, 1986, Albany Times Union).
Karas stated that he read Miranda rights to Marybeth and she
understood them. Another state police investigator told the court that
after Marybeth confessed to killing three of her children, she seemed
relieved that it was over. The stenographer who took Marybeth's
statement on February 4, 1987, Margot Bernhardt, also testified that
Marybeth was not forced to answer any questions and seemed to
understand everything that was said to her. But the real drama came on
December 16 when, for the first time, the world heard Marybeth's
version of how eight of her children died, essentially in her arms,
for no known medical reason.
"They were telling me what to say," she told the
court, "A lot of time the police made a statement and then I just
repeated it. These gentlemen were telling a story and I just repeated
it" (Dec. 12, 1986, Knickerbocker News). She said that the
police yelled and threatened her and any statements she may have made,
were in response to that intimidation. "I was just tired," Marybeth
offered, "I didn't want to go on. I knew what they were doing was
wrong, but it would appear they had me in their clutches" (ibid). She
said that she resisted the suggestions of the police for hours but
finally broke down when they threatened to dig up the bodies of her
children. "They said that if I did not tell the truth," she told the
court, "they would take my kids out of their graves and rip them limb
from limb!" The Albany Times Union reported that Marybeth
"calmly responded to almost all of the questions...but she fought back
tears when she testified about what she claimed was a police threat to
unearth her children's bodies" (Dec. 16, 1986).
The murder trial of Marybeth Tinning opened in
Schenectady County Court on June, 22, 1987. The prosecuting attorney,
John Poersch, had been on the case since before Marybeth was arrested.
During contentious pre-trial hearings, the prosecution argued
successfully that the crucial statements made by the defendant on
February 4, 1986 at State Police headquarters were not coerced and
would be admissible. Marybeth's full 36-page confession would be
available at trial. "Once you have heard all of the evidence and
assimilated it," Poersch said in his opening statement, "you will come
back with a verdict of murder in the second degree against Marybeth
Tinning, who murdered her child by smothering it." Defense attorney
Paul Callahan challenged the prosecution to come up with a cause of
death for Tami Lynne. "That is going to be very critical," he said to
the jury, "How did this child die?" (June 23, 1987, Knickerbocker
The medical testimony at the trial was complex,
involving several doctors, all experts, who held different opinions on
the disturbing tendencies of the Tinning children to die suddenly and
without explanation. Some of the testimony helped the defendant. Other
portions were extremely damaging. Dr. Bradley Ford, who examined Tami
Lynne when she was an infant, advised the Tinnings that in view of
their family history, a crib monitor should be installed. The device
would sound an alarm if Tami Lynne stopped breathing. Curiously,
Marybeth refused. "The monitor was recommended," he told the court,
"but the parents elected not to use it" (June 25, 1987,
Knickerbocker News). Ironically, the doctor did not insist on the
monitor because the baby was in such good health. Dr. Thomas Oram
testified on the cause of death. He denied that Tami Lynne died from
SIDS. "I'm saying sir, in essence that I came to the definite,
positive conclusion that this child was smothered," said Dr. Oram to
the court, "This would be the only thing that would answer all the
evidence" (July 1, 1987, Knickerbocker News).
The defense called several physicians to the stand
to refute that allegation and to offer evidence that all the Tinning
children suffered from a genetic defect. Dr. Arnulf Koeppen, a
pathologist at Albany Veteran's Administration Hospital, told the
court that it was his belief that Jonathan, the seventh child, had
died from Wernig-Hoffman Disease, a genetic disease that attacks the
spinal column. When pressed on that assertion, he was unable to state
that Tami Lynne had that disease as well. Dr. Jack N.P. Davies, a
well-known pathologist, went a step further. He claimed that the
affliction that killed all nine children was unknown. "Frankly," he
said to the court, "I think this may be a new syndrome, a new disease"
(July 6, 1987, Knickerbocker News).
However to refute defense claims of genetic
diseases, the prosecution called Dr. Marie Valdez-Dapena, a nationally
recognized expert on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Noting that Tami
Lynne had a perfectly normal spinal column, she said that "it's highly
unlikely that this is a case of Werdnig-Hoffman Disease." Rather, she
believed that "there is a stronger probability that this was a
suffocation with a soft object, in light of the family's history"
(July 8, 1987, Knickerbocker News). Following Dr.
Valdez-Dapena's testimony, the defense was allowed to call further
witnesses to refute the prosecution's medical experts. It became the
battle of the doctors with both sides calling six pathologists, all
who had different opinions on how Tami Lynne died. Dr. John L. Emerey
had the most interesting observation. "I'd like to investigate the
family," he said, "The ideal experiment would be to let her have more
children and look at them biochemically" (July 10, 1987,
In closing statements, District Attorney Poersch
stood on the facts of the case and relied on the jury's common sense.
"I don't think there is any question that the prosecution has proved
this case," he told the court, "I don't think there is any other thing
we could offer to substantiate that Mary Beth Tinning killed those
three children" (July 16, 1987, Albany Times Union). Defense
counsel Paul Callahan appealed to the jury's sense of fair play.
"Don't be led into the conclusion that there are inferences and
innuendos that are proof that she may have killed Tami Lynne," he told
the jury in his summation. "If she didn't cry at the right time, if
she laughed at the wrong time, does that mean she is guilty of
murder," he added, "or that she's a human being with emotions?" (ibid)
But the jury could not help noticing one important
point. Marybeth Tinning, who was accused of the worst crime a mother
could commit, who had been labeled a baby killer and faced a life
sentence in prison if convicted, had refused to take the witness stand
in her own defense.
The Schenectady County jury deliberated almost 20
hours over three days. The panel later reported there was at least
some initial confusion over the wording in the New York murder
statute. However, once that uncertainty was cleared up, the panel
quickly reached a decision. On the afternoon of July 17, 1987, Mary
Beth Tinning, 44, was found guilty of murder in the second degree in
the death of Tami Lynne, showing "a depraved indifference to human
life." The jury could not agree on the issue of whether she actually
intended to kill the child. But her statements to the police were the
pivotal factor in the jury's decision.
"I think we could have convicted her without it,"
one juror told the Albany Times Union, "but that was a great
part of it. We went over and over it, and there's no way in my mind
that I feel she gave it unwillingly." The defense claimed that
Marybeth was intimidated by police and would have admitted to
anything. But the jury disagreed. "[Police] gave her so many
opportunities to say 'I want to stop, I want a lawyer, I want to use
the phone," the juror said later, "but she never did that." The
conviction carried a potential 20 years to life sentence.
After the verdict was announced, Marybeth covered
her face with her hands and began to weep. Joe Tinning was typically
unmoved. "I can't really complain that they didn't think about it," he
said later of the jury, "they did their job, I just have a different
opinion on it" (July 18, 1987, New York Times). Defense
attorney Paul Callahan told the press he would file an appeal
immediately. The appeal, he said, would be based on Tinning's epic
36-page confession to investigators on February 4. Callahan said the
document should never have been admitted into evidence.
District Attorney John Proesch said he was pleased
with the decision and Mrs. Tinning may have to stand trial in the
deaths of some of her other children. "I can assure you this is round
one," he said to reporters outside the courthouse, "I will see Mrs.
Tinning and the defense again!" (July 18, 1987, Albany Times
"She is a Wicked Woman!"
On October 2, 1987, Marybeth was brought into
Schenectady County Court for the last time. Judge Clifford T. Harrigan
was the sentencing judge. Prosecutor John B. Poersch asked the court
for a maximum sentence of 25 years to life. "This woman knew the
consequences of all her acts," he told the court, "she is a wicked
woman." Defense attorney Paul Callahan requested the minimum 15 years.
When the judge asked Mrs. Tinning if she had anything to say, she read
from a prepared statement.
"I want you and the people in this courtroom to
know that I am very sorry that Tami Lynne is dead," she said. "There
is not a day that goes by that I don't think of her. I miss her very
much. I just want you to know that I played no part in the death of my
daughter, Tami Lynne. I will try to hold my head high and accept the
punishment that society and the court requires for the crime I was
convicted of. I did not commit this crime but will serve the time in
prison to the best of my ability. However, I will never stop fighting
to prove my innocence. The Lord above and I know I am innocent. One
day the whole world will know that I am innocent and maybe then I can
have my life back once again or what is left of it."
Immediately following her statement, Marybeth was
sentenced to 20 years to life. Amid shouts from the audience such as,
"Baby killer!" "Bitch!" and more, she was taken from the courtroom and
remanded to the county jail. Though the district attorney's office
promised additional prosecutions for the deaths of the other children,
it never happened. In August 1989, Marybeth was indicted for the
murders of Nathan, who was six months old, and Timothy, who was 16
days old. However, charges were later dropped due to a lack of
evidence. Tami Lynne was the only murder of which Marybeth was ever
An appeal on her conviction was made to the New
York State Appellate Court based on the notion that Marybeth's
confession was not voluntarily given. "Our review of the record," the
court said in their decision, "leads us to conclude that the people
have shown the legality of the police conduct. Defendant testified
that she willingly accompanied the police officers for questioning and
that before leaving home she spoke with her husband, who advised her
not to call an attorney...further evidence in the record supported
findings that defendant was not handcuffed, threatened or coerced,
that she was free to leave...Accordingly, defendant's conviction must
be affirmed on all respects" (People v. Tinning 142AD 2d 402).
What could have been the motive behind Marybeth's
bizarre behavior towards her children? Some investigators believed she
became enamored with the attention and sympathy she received after
each baby's death. Some deep psychological need may have been
satisfied by the consideration that friends and relatives displayed
for her. At each of the funeral proceedings, Marybeth was always the
focus of adulation. She was viewed mostly as a victim of some terrible
unknown tragedy, which no mother would ever want to experience. This
may have given her some unique sense of being someone special and
deserving of the attention that everyone lavished upon her despite the
morbid circumstances. These symptoms point to a rare and mysterious
psychological condition called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP).
This affliction inspires the mother to physically abuse her child
while showering the victim with love and care.
And what about Jennifer's death? She died in 1972
at the age of eight days, never leaving the hospital after birth. The
cause of death was listed as meningitis. Dr. Michael Baden comments on
this baby's death in his book, Confessions of a Medical Examiner.
"Jennifer looks to be the victim of a coat hanger," he writes,
"Tinning had been trying to hasten her birth and only succeeded in
introducing meningitis. The police theorized that she wanted to
deliver the baby on Christmas Day, like Jesus. She thought her father,
who had died while she was pregnant, would have been pleased." In
Egginton's book, From Cradle to the Grave, the author says that
maternity ward nurses knew "Marybeth tried to induce the birth of
Jennifer so that the baby would be born on Christmas Day, the
reincarnation of her father in heaven."
Marybeth Tinning, now inmate No. 87G0597, is housed
at the Bedford Hills Prison for Women in New York. She has a parole
hearing scheduled for March 2007.
Parole Support from Unusual Source
In one of the most bizarre and perplexing murder
cases in the history of American criminal justice, Marybeth Tinning,
now sixty-four, appeared before a New York parole board last week.
After a contentious trial in 1987, in which Tinning was convicted of
the murder of her baby daughter, Tami Lynne, age four months, the
former school bus driver was sentenced to twenty years to life.
During the police investigation that led to that
trial, Tinning also admitted to the murder of a son, Nathan, in 1975.
But there was so much more. Police were convinced that Tinning
murdered all eight of her children over a period of fourteen years.
She was later indicted in the killing of two of those children, but
charges were later dismissed for lack of evidence.
Though she was never convicted in any of the other
deaths, and it seems likely she never will be convicted, suspicions
persist that Marybeth Tinning is one of America's most unusual female
Tinning's parole hearing was held this past March
29, at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York.
It is the same prison that holds Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire
school teacher convicted in the murder plot of her husband in 1990.
Also incarcerated there is Carolyn Warmus, the blonde heiress who was
convicted in 1992 of the killing of her lover's wife, a crime
frequently referred to as the "Fatal Attraction Murder" by the New
York tabloids. Tinning appeared before the three-member board who
interviewed her about her crimes, her incarceration and her hopes for
the future. It was her first application for parole.
Marybeth Tinning's bid for release had support from
some surprising sources. Oddly, former State Police Investigator
William Barnes, who elicited her confession and whose testimony helped
convict Tinning at her trial, stands behind efforts to have her
released. "She is no danger to society at that age," Barnes said to
reporters from Albany's Times-Union. "What harm is she to
somebody and how much are you going to get from her by keeping her
in?" Barnes was also joined by County Judge Clifford Harrigan, who
sentenced Tinning to prison back in 1987. According to press reports,
he allegedly wrote a letter of recommendation to the board that she be
Parole Board Rules
During the interview, the parole commissioners
emphasized Tinning's apparent lack of remorse and her insistence that
she simply does not remember what happened to Tami Lynne. "You were
found guilty of causing the death of your infant daughter by
asphyxiation. The victim was vulnerable and totally reliant on you for
love, care and safety....you stated that during the interview that you
could not believe that you would harm your child but could not recall
exactly what occurred....you appear to have little insight into your
crime and display little remorse. You have absolved yourself of
The parole board takes several factors into
consideration, including the inmate's understanding of the crime,
remorse, responsibility and rehabilitation. Tinning failed on all
those points. "Your depraved indifference to human life leads this
panel to conclude your release is incompatible with the welfare of
society. To release you would deprecate the serious nature of this
crime...parole is denied."
The Schenectady County District Attorney's Office
has not actively investigated the baffling case in many years.
Detectives have long ago moved on to other assignments, pursuant to
the demands of the office. But the statute of limitations never
expires on murder. It is the only crime in which the books are never
officially closed. However, since all the available evidence has been
collected in the Tinning case and there are no new leads to follow, a
prosecution for the remaining seven deaths does not seem feasible. And
unless Marybeth suddenly confesses to what many investigators feel
they already know, that she killed all eight of her children, one of
America's strangest murder cases will remain unsolved.
Tinning was again denied parole in March 2009.