A Cape Town mother who poisoned her eight-month-old daughter to death did so because she felt there was no other way out of the bleak financial situation she found herself in, the Western Cape High Court has heard.
Phamela Somkence, 29, of Philippi was sentenced to 10 years behind bars on Monday after she admitted that she poisoned her daughter to death and attempted to kill the child’s older sister in the same way.
The incident took place at their Browns Farm home in October 2010 when Somkence mixed poison into her daughters’ fruit juice and gave it to them before drinking the same deadly concoction in a bid to end her own life.
The young mother claimed she did it because she felt it was the only way out of the dire financial situation she was in as a result of being unemployed.
Somkence and eight-year-old Thimna survived after medical treatment, but Ichume died before reaching a hospital.
In a plea and sentence agreement concluded with the State on Monday, it emerged that Somkence was taking emotional strain at the time she committed the offences because she could not find a job.
She has a secretarial diploma.
In addition, she did not receive financial help from the children’s fathers and had received several letters of demand for outstanding debt.
Her hopes were raised a week before the murder when Thimna’s father told her he would contribute to the maintenance of his child because he had found a job.
However, he died a day after he spoke to her, shattering her hopes of alleviating their poverty-stricken situation.
In desperation, she approached Ichume’s father for financial assistance.
However, she claims that his family turned her away and allegedly assaulted her because they saw her as a nuisance.
Following the alleged assault, she obtained an order against his sister.
In addition, the relationship between Somkence and her own family had also broken down and she began to feel isolated.
The day after the alleged assault at the hands of Ichume’s father’s family, Somkence thought that ending their lives was the only way out.
One of the aggravating factors taken into account when negotiating the plea bargain was the increasing number of similar offences.
In addition, she had the children’s trust and had ample time to reconsider her actions.
Thimna will now have to live with the knowledge that her own mother tried to poison her and that her sister died after drinking the poison.
However, the mitigating factors taken into account by the court include that Somkence is a first offender and that she showed genuine remorse for what she did.
In addition, by pleading guilty, she also spared the court and the State the expense of a protracted trial, and prevented the surviving daughter from having to testify against her.
Her emotional state and “feelings of helplessness” as a result of her financial situation were considered to be substantial and compelling circumstances, justifying a departure from the prescribed minimum sentence of life imprisonment.
Before Cape Judge President John Hlophe on Monday, Somkence confirmed that she understood the consequences of pleading guilty to the charges of murder and attempted murder.
She said the contents of the plea and sentence agreement had been explained to her before she signed it.
The murder and attempted murder charges were taken together for the purposes of sentencing and she received a term of 15 years behind bars, of which five years were suspended for five years on condition that she was not convicted of an offence involving violence.
Somkence’s advocate, Lara Joubert, informed the court that, since her client was the primary caregiver for the surviving child, provision had been made for Thimna’s care while Somkence was in prison.
A report from the Department of Social Development was handed to the court.
As the court adjourned, Somkence’s mother, Aganethu, wept uncontrollably as family members comforted her in the public gallery.
She hugged Somkence as court orderlies led her away.
Somkence’s relatives declined to speak to the media.
A disturbing trend of similar cases
* Thirty-one-year-old Zulpha Jacobs, pictured, has been charged with murder and child abandonment after the body of her two-year-old son Tariq was found in a shallow grave close to Imperial Primary School in Beacon Valley on December 31.
A neighbourhood watch member found his body.
* In February, 35-year-old Nyarai Chiwandire, stepped in front of an oncoming train near Eerste River railway station with her 16-month-old daughter Rosemary and six-day-old son Allan, killing all three.
* Last month, the Western Cape High Court sentenced Nonkholiso Skotha, 51, of Zwelethemba, Worcester, to 15 years in prison after she killed her nephews for not doing their house chores.
Seven-year-old Ntumeko Mboxi and 11-year-old Zama had been in Skotha’s care since their mother died in 2005.
In a plea bargain she pleaded guilty to murder and assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm.
* Thirty-five-year-old Venolia Siwa stands accused in the Pampierstad Magistrate’s Court in the Northern Cape of the murders of her five children in October last year.
She allegedly forced her children to drink a cocktail of brake fluid and cooldrink but then drowned them when she thought they were not dying quickly enough.
The eldest, Sizwe, was disabled. The other children were Lukanyo, 10, Edward, five, Reatlegile, four, and Matiki, two.