As a society, we've become more understanding when a woman murders an abusive partner. It's hard not to feel sympathy for someone who can take no more physical and emotional damage, and kills a monster.
But what about an abused woman who kills her own children? Should we feel sympathy for her?
A few months ago an acting judge in Durban, Guido Penzhorn, was presented with the case of Saziso Mtshali. She had pleaded guilty to murdering her two young children in exchange for a 15-year prison term, and Judge Penzhorn was asked to ratify the sentence. Concerned about what he read in the papers, the judge took the matter further, first requesting a probation officer's report and then asking an experienced Durban criminal silk, Pingla Hemraj, to become involved pro amico.
She obtained the evidence of Professor Lourens Schlebusch, one of the most prominent expert psychologists in the field of suicide and "extended suicide" - where a person kills himself or herself, but first kills someone else "out of love". The prosecution then called their own expert witness, Professor BJ Pillay, head of the department of behavioural medicine at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine.
It emerged that Mtshali, a single mother, lived in a rural area on a farm where she helped out occasionally. She had a low IQ and hadn't finished school, but was responsible for herself, her children and her grandmother.
Towards the end of June 2009 she left the farm to visit the children's father at his house in Umlazi. It was a pre-arranged visit during the school holidays, and must have been a big occasion for her and the children, involving a long trip from the platteland to the city.
But when the little party arrived, he beat her up and said he didn't want them there. The court accepted that abuse such as this was a pattern in their relationship. The father let them stay the night, but the next morning he threw them out, saying he never wanted to see them again.
Mtshali took the children and R120 that he had given them - money that would not get them out of the city, let alone back to the farm. After some distance they spent the day sheltering under a bush. It's a powerful image: two terrified children and their beaten-up mother, huddled together in a strange place with nowhere to go.
The children asked why their father had beaten her, and the older child said it would be better if they all died. They prayed and tried to comfort one another. Eventually, when it grew dark, the children fell asleep. By that time Mtshali had not been able to think of any way out of their plight other than killing herself and the children. She took a cocktail of tablets that she had with her. Then she strangled the children as they slept, before lying down next to them to die.
But she didn't die; she woke up and found the two little bodies next to her. Desperate with grief and remorse she, went straight to a police station to report what she had done.
The professors told the court that she suffered from a form of "battered woman syndrome" and post-traumatic stress. With her low intellectual functioning, she could think of no way out other than ending her life and those of her children, for whom she could not care properly.
Deeply depressed, she was likely to try once again to take her life. They found no evidence of violent tendencies in her make-up and said she needed treatment for her despair, rather than imprisonment.
The judge accepted it was unlikely she would have the treatment she needed, given the overcrowded prison system, adding that the case did not call out for retribution. Mtshali had acted out of love for her children, for whom she could not care and for whom she saw no future. He gave her a suspended sentence and three years of correctional supervision attached to a number of conditions, including psychological treatment.
It's really an extraordinary story, with Mtshali like the tragic heroine of a Thomas Hardy novel: a rural innocent made the victim of circumstances and the cruel city. It's a story of a life of deprivation and despair. But it's also the story of how sometimes the justice system operates as it should, even in South Africa, with top experts spending time and energy to help a little person, giving her a second chance in life. For once, concern was shown for the story of the little person - even one accused of murder