It started with cramps, so severe that Sosefina Amoa left a prayer meeting at the D.C. convent where she was studying to become a nun.
By the time she made it to her room at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Northeast Washington that October evening, the pain was unbearable. Minutes later, Amoa gave birth to a full-term boy she said she did not know she had been carrying.
The 26-year-old, who had arrived in the United States only five days earlier, said she passed out and awoke to find her son lying next to her. Afraid his cries would alert the nuns, she said, she covered his face with a wool sweater. She later told police that she held it there for two or three minutes.
Amoa said she put the baby on the bed and crawled in next to him. He was no longer breathing.
“I’m sorry. I never meant to harm the baby,” Amoa said through a Samoan interpreter in an interview recently at the D.C. jail.
“I was shocked when the baby came out,” she said. “I felt the life had gone out of me.”
Initially, Amoa told one of the sisters and the mother superior that she had found the newborn outside but soon admitted that he was her child. A week after the birth, she was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Four months later, Amoa pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
On Friday, Amoa is scheduled to be sentenced by a D.C. Superior Court judge. Born into a Catholic family in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, Amoa came to Washington to live and study with the Little Sisters of the Poor in hopes of becoming a nun.
Prosecutors have alleged that she hid her pregnancy and then killed the infant because she feared she would be kicked out of the convent and sent back to Samoa. Amoa and her attorney say she accidentally smothered the baby amid the shock and pain of childbirth.
A nun named the boy Joseph.
“I did not know I was pregnant. If I knew, I would have told the truth to my parents, my family and head of the sister convent in Samoa,” Amoa said. “Myself, I love children. But at the time of the incident, I was overwhelmed. I did not expect I would be having a baby. I never thought of killing the baby.”
Amoa, dressed in a navy-blue jail jumpsuit and white T-shirt with her hair in a ponytail, spoke, often softly, through a shy, steady smile. She rarely looked at the reporter seated next to her, instead glancing toward a wall or door.
Amoa is the fifth of seven children born to a cabdriver and a seamstress. She grew up singing in the choir and taught Sunday school. She was 12, she said, when she received “the call” to become a nun. She said she admired how the nuns worked with the elderly.
Amoa said she has had two boyfriends. She grew up afraid that her father would discover she was dating, so she kept it secret, she would later tell a psychiatrist.
The second boyfriend, she said, was the father of her son. The two dated for about three months, and she has not spoken to him since the baby’s death.
“It is hard for me,” she said. “I know he probably has heard what happened, but I haven’t heard from him.”
Amoa’s 28-year-old sister, Siniva Kelsall, speaking recently by phone from New Zealand, said the details surrounding Amoa’s pregnancy and the child’s death have troubled the family. “My mother is in shock by this. I know my mother would have spoiled this boy if he were alive,” she said.
Kelsall said that after she had graduated from high school and left home, Amoa took over cooking and cleaning for the family. Kelsall said that she thinks her sister is concerned she “disappointed us” but that the family stands behind her.
“Other people here are not judging her for what happened,” Kelsall said.
Last fall, Kelsall drove her sister to the airport for her trip to the United States.
In the months before the flight, Amoa said, she had added very little weight to her barely 5-foot, 100-pound body. She said she often had, as she described, an “irregular” menstrual cycle. On Oct. 10, Amoa gave birth.
That evening, after she cleaned up, Amoa said, she left the room and asked one of the sisters to return with her. At first she said she had found the baby. She later confessed to the nun that she was the mother.
“I said, ‘Forgive me for lying,’ ” Amoa recalled, tears rolling down her cheeks. “My mind was confused. I did not understand what was going on.”
They put the baby’s body into a suitcase and took him to a hospital.
Today, Amoa says she doesn’t remember seeing the baby’s face while he was next to her on the floor or in the bed. Her only memory of what he looked like is from the autopsy photo.
“I saw his face, but it was so fuzzy and I was in a daze,” she said. “I remember more of him from the picture.”
Amoa’s attorneys at the D.C. Public Defender Service hired Cleveland-based psychiatrist Philip J. Resnick, who concluded that Amoa suffered from anxiety and depression. He found her competent but “emotionally overwhelmed” at the time of her son’s birth, according to his report.
One startling revelation also surfaced. Amoa told Resnick that she has had hallucinations since she was a teenager. About once a month, she said, she would hear a person laughing when she was alone. At times, she felt someone standing next to her. Her parents had tried to get her to see a doctor when she was younger, but she declined and, instead, would “think good thoughts.” The hallucinations, she told Resnick, did not surface at the time she went into labor.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Wright has said in court that it was Amoa’s desire to become a nun, a dream she has had since she was a child, that led her to lie about being sexually active, to lie about finding the baby outside and to hide her pregnancy from her family and the convent. Wright, who declined to comment for this article, said in February that she planned to ask Judge Robert E. Morin to sentence Amoa to between four and 10 years in prison as part of her plea deal.
Judith Pipe, one of Amoa’s attorneys, said she hopes Morin will forgo the prison sentence, consider the seven months Amoa has been in jail and order her returned to Samoa.
Amoa said she receives letters from members of the D.C. convent, including the priest, who, she said, writes daily. Officials with the Little Sisters declined to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Amoa said, she prays — for herself, for her baby and for others.
“I pray that God blesses people. I pray for the poor and the homeless people,” she said.
She also prays for those in jail with her. “I pray God to give them a good life and that they can go back home.”