The 19-year-old mother of an infant found dead in a microwave oven in rural Virginia last week was charged today with first-degree murder.
The arrest signals that authorities are skeptical of the possibility that Elizabeth Renee Otte put her 1-month-old baby into the microwave because she was confused after an epileptic seizure, as friends say she told her family.
"As we look at it, there was unlawful killing," said C. Linwood Gregory, commonwealth's attorney in New Kent County. "It's for the court to decide . . . what type of crime was committed and whether it was committed under some type of disability."
Some epilepsy specialists today raised doubts that an epileptic condition could lead to such an accident.
Joseph Lewis Martinez, born Aug. 18, was found in the microwave by his aunt early Thursday after relatives had searched the home in Lanexa, a small community along the Chickahominy River, about 35 miles east of Richmond.
Otte's parents took her to Williamsburg Community Hospital after the baby was found, and on Friday she was committed by court order to a secure psychiatric facility, Gregory said. He would not name the facility.
Such commitments can be ordered in cases in which a person is determined to be a threat to herself or others, or cannot care for herself, Gregory said.
The New Kent County Sheriff's Department arrested Otte this morning and brought her before a magistrate, who ordered her held without bond at the psychiatric facility. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
State medical examiners have not released a cause of death, though Chief Medical Examiner Marcella F. Fierro has said the baby had burns consistent with microwaving. The baby had blisters and red patches, according to those who saw his body.
Friends said Otte, who was on medication for epilepsy, told her family that a seizure caused her to mistake her baby for a bottle of milk that needed warming. The claim is both a potential legal defense for Otte and a possible explanation for an act friends and neighbors call incomprehensible.
Epilepsy experts held open the possibility that disorientation after a seizure could have contributed to the alleged crime, but they called it unlikely. The Epilepsy Foundation, based in Landover, said any comment on the connection between a seizure and the baby's death would be "highly speculative."
Defendants occasionally use epilepsy, the name for a variety of disorders causing seizures, as a legal defense for violent acts, including murder. But judges and juries are typically skeptical, and doctors who specialize in the disorder say the link between a seizure and violence is tenuous.
More than 2 million Americans have epilepsy. Many report that after a seizure they are disoriented or find themselves able to perform simple repetitive actions but not focused, complex actions.
"If it did play a factor, it would be exceedingly rare," said Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University and an adviser to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Devinsky and other epilepsy experts said that a person with such severe confusion after a seizure would have a difficult time with the complex task of putting the baby in the microwave and operating its controls.
"You can't be confused about the baby and the bottle and not be confused about the microwave," said Marianne Schuelein, a neurologist at Georgetown University Medical Center. "You're confused across the board. You're not just confused in one thing."
Friends said Otte's epileptic seizures became more frequent after July 4, when her 17-year-old brother died in a car crash.
The baby's death has shocked and angered many in the tiny town where both Otte and the baby's father, Joseph Anthony Martinez, 18, grew up and went to school. Immediate family members could not be reached for comment today, though friends said that the family held a funeral for the baby on Saturday.
The baby's parents were living with the elder Martinez's parents in a one-story brick rancher. Family members told authorities they awoke early Thursday and discovered that the baby was missing. A sheriff's deputy arrived at 5:43 a.m. to aid in the search and was in the home when the baby was found in the microwave oven.
Kellie Britton, 23, a friend of the baby's aunt, said the woman found the body "folded" into the microwave.