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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Finding the balance between justice and mercy

Panna Krom in York prison. The CT department of corrections
Panna Krom in York prison. The CT department of corrections

Finding the balance between justice and mercy

Nearly 10 years ago, the teenage daughter of Cambodian refugees in Connecticut killed her newborn daughter and was sentenced to nearly two decades behind bars. Now, after nine years in jail and thanks to a passionate advocate, Panna Krom has a sliver of hope for clemency

On the night of December 28, 2006, in the city of Danbury, Connecticut, 17-year-old high school senior Panna Krom gave birth alone in her bathroom. According to the autopsy report, the baby was a girl weighing 7.4 pounds with brown eyes. Later the family would refer to the baby as “Angel”.

After the delivery, Panna, the only daughter of Cambodian refugees, tried to flush the newborn away but she was too big, so the teenager held her underwater in the toilet bowl. She then double-wrapped the tiny body in a sweatshirt and a towel and hid the bundle in her closet. Angel had lived for less than two hours.

A week later, Panna was charged with first-degree murder. In Connecticut, there have been at least five cases of teenage “neonaticide”, the killing of a newborn within 24 hours, since 1976. From available public information, the average sentencing for defendants in those cases was 19.4 months. In a similar time period, the average sentence across the US was 3.5 years. Panna, who pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter in a plea bargain deal, received 18 years.

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Panna Krom in high school. Her mother described her as: ‘Short like me, with a pretty face, big eyes and a positive attitude.’ Photo supplied

Some believe Panna’s punishment does not fit the crime. Moreover, psychologists who later evaluated Panna concluded that she had likely been psychologically detached from her actions, due in part to severe levels of stress brought on by her parents’ Khmer Rouge PTSD as well as a deep-seated fear of violating her family’s cultural taboos regarding dating and premarital sex. Now, thanks to a passionate advocate, after nearly a decade in jail, Panna has a sliver of hope for mercy.

Doug Hood remembers when he first met Panna. It was in passing at the York Correctional Institute, Connecticut’s only all-women’s state prison, in 2013. Panna, 1.55m tall, softly spoken, with high eyebrows and a thick build, has lived there for nearly a decade.

Hood volunteers at York in a writing program for prisoners. Though Panna was not one of his students, Hood, a tall, bespectacled neurologist nearing retirement, had recently heard of her lengthy sentence. It had shocked him, he said, and that day in the hallway he introduced himself.

“I told her: ‘I heard something about your story,’” Hood recounted in an interview with Post Weekend over Skype last week. “‘Can I work on it?’”

Hood is not an objective observer. Over the past three and a half years he has worked meticulously – obsessively, even – to right what he considers a glaring wrong: Panna’s “extraordinarily unfair sentence”. It has become his mission, he said, “something to sink [his] teeth into”.

Hood has compiled troves of data relating to Panna’s manslaughter case – police filings, high school report cards, family histories, letters of support from social workers, academics, legal experts – building an argument for the now 26-year-old’s early release under clemency laws. In his research, Hood has grown close with Panna’s parents, who he meets with weekly.

Hood’s efforts culminated in a clemency appeal to the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles late last month. It will take a few months until Panna gets an answer on the appeal, said Hood, who admits Panna’s chances of early release are low. In 25 years, the state has only granted clemency twice.

But to see her walk out, said Hood, “would be the happiest moment of my life”.

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Panna Krom (centre bottom) in jail with parents and cousins. ‘Panna is the smart one, the strong one in our family,’ relatives said in a letter. Photo Supplied

Hood uses strong language when talking about Panna’s plight. He said he has become “singularly devoted to her” and “very sympathetic to the family”. He has turned “devoutly Buddhist” and believes, as per the Krom family’s account, that a Khmer fortune teller several years ago predicted his arrival.

Hood explains all of this in a 93-slide powerpoint, which he narrates with a storyteller’s panache in public presentations.

Erik Harms, an associate professor of Southeast Asian anthropology at Yale University, where Hood presented his powerpoint in October, described his reaction after attending Hood’s presentation.

“To me, [Panna’s sentencing] was a clear example of placing all the blame for a tragedy on a very vulnerable person, who was in many ways herself a victim of very difficult circumstances,” he said.

***
Compared to similar cases, Panna’s sentence is abnormally long, according to some experts.  

“The length of this sentence is almost unprecedented and does not fit the crime,” wrote Dr Edward Zigler, a renowned Yale developmental psychologist, in a supportive letter for Panna’s clemency appeal. “The unique circumstances of her case make it even more of an injustice.”

Michelle Oberman, an academic who specialises in infanticide and co-author of the book Mothers Who Kill Their Children also contributed a letter in favour of clemency.

Nothing can excuse “the horrific nature of her crime”, Oberman wrote. “However, the sentence Panna is serving far outstrips the punishments typically associated with this crime.”

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Panna’s mother, Chan, with the Connecticut governor’s wife, Cathy Malloy. Photo supplied

One local newspaper columnist wrote at the time of her sentencing: “Panna Krom was an ignorant, fearful teenager who made a mistake. Should justice be about ruining another life?”

But Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J Sedensky III, who prosecuted Panna, does not feel similarly.

“She intentionally killed a child, so we do think that people need to be held accountable for that,” Sedensky said over the phone. Sedensky said that he had received Hood’s appeal and would be providing his opinion to the pardons board after further review of the file.

“One of the interesting things that I do find from the clemency application is the avoidance of actually what the behaviour was: drowning her baby girl in the toilet,” he said.

***
When Panna killed Angel, she did not know what she was doing, Hood said. He was citing psychologists who evaluated her for the clemency appeal. Panna had descended into a “dissociative syndrome” during the neonaticide act, they said, one brought on by extreme levels of stress.

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Doug Hood, a neurologist, has been instrumental in Panna’s clemency appeal. Photo supplied

Infanticide expert Dr Margaret Spinelli said that the syndrome, “usually caused by a severe stress reaction”, was common during acts of neonaticide.

Theavny Kuoch is the executive director of the Hartford-based Cambodian mental health NGO Khmer Health Advocates (KHA), who Hood said provided Panna’s pro bono 30-page diagnosis. While Kuoch could not confirm or deny KHA’s role in Panna’s case due to US patient confidentiality laws, she echoed Hood’s claims that Panna’s stress had been caused in part by her parents’ PTSD.  

According to Kuoch, Cambodian refugees are diagnosed with mental disorders such as depression or PTSD in numbers 10 times greater than the general population.

While psychologists do not fully understand how trauma affects the children of survivors, studies from other survivor groups suggest that trauma symptoms can be passed down to offspring. One recent study of Jewish holocaust survivors in New York concluded that trauma altered the very genes of survivors’ descendants.

According to Hood, Panna feared how her family would react if they found out she had been sexually active. Other female relatives with hidden love lives had set off dramatic episodes within the family. In one case, a relative fled to Boston with her boyfriend out of fear of discovery. Hood repeatedly cited the sexual conservatism of her parents. Dating was “highly illegal” and a major “taboo” within the family, he said.

Panna was particularly fearful of her father, who suffered from PTSD and possessed a notorious temper, said Hood. Referencing interviews with Panna’s mother and aunt, Hood said that if Panna’s father had discovered she was pregnant, he might have killed her.

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A clipping from a local newspaper on Panna Krom’s murder charge. Photo supplied

Yet despite Panna’s teenage fears of parental abandonment, the Kroms have been fully supportive of their imprisoned daughter. They write to her often and speak on the phone when they can. Every Saturday, Panna’s parents drive two hours to visit her at York.

“Last week, she didn’t do too good. She was stressed, crying,” said Chan, Panna’s mother, yesterday over the phone. “She’s worried that the clemency is not going to happen.”

“Right now, we just think about the clemency,” Chan continued. “That’s the only thing in our heads right now. We both hope so much that it’s going to happen.” 

*Panna Krom could not be reached in jail for this article.

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