Born on the 18th August 1999, Joseph Lewis Martinez was the son of Joseph Anthony Martinez and Elizabeth Renee Otte, who lived together with Joseph Anthony's parents in a "one-story brick rancher" in Lanexa, about thirty-five miles east of Richmond, Virginia. During the early hours of the morning of the 23rd September 1999, Joseph senior woke up about 5:30 am with the realisation that he hadn't been awoken by the sound of his son crying during the course of the night. He went to check on young Joseph junior, found his cot empty, and so went to wake up Bonnie Watson, who had moved in to care for the baby.
They found no sign of young Joseph during their initial search of the house, and so the decision was made to call on the assistance of various relatives as well as the police. A sheriff's deputy arrived at 5:43 am who duly organised a more thorough search of the house, and it was at 6.00 am that Joseph senior's younger sister, Alina Martinez made the fateful decision to look inside the microwave oven and so discovered the body of Joseph junior, "still in his white Winnie the Pooh sleeper".
Suspicions naturally fell on the child's mother, Elizabeth Otte, and on the 24th September 1999 she was taken to Williamsburg Community Hospital and later that day was committed by court order to an unnamed secure psychiatric facility. She was subsequently arrested by the New Kent County Sheriff's Department on the 28th September and charged with first degree murder. According to Chief Medical Examiner Marcella F. Fierro, Joseph Lewis Martinez had suffered burns which were "consistent with microwaving" and it was later concluded that the baby had been in the oven for at least ten minutes and had died from "thermal injuries associated with overheating of the blood".
At the New Kent Circuit Court on the 25th September 2000, Otte's attorneys entered a so-called Alford plea, in which she acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict her, without actually admitting her guilt. The defence was based on the fact that Otte suffered from epilepsy, and it was claimed that she had suffered a grand mal seizure whilst feeding her baby in the living room and could not remember anything that happened afterwards. Indeed the defence had arranged for an experiment to be conducted, in which a grand mal seizure had been induced upon Elizabeth Otte and had been observed entering a trancelike state during which it was claimed she was able to operate a tape recorder. It was therefore argued that she was similarly capable of operating the microwave oven whilst suffering a seizure. On the other hand the prosecution claimed that Otte had threatened a family member shortly after the baby was found, and told them that, "You'll be next", whilst "epilepsy experts" doubted her explanation of events.
As it was the case never went to trial as her attorneys reached a plea bargain with the prosecution, with Otte pleading guilty to the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. On the 13th December 2000 Judge John R. Alderman delivered sentence. He commented that after reflecting "long and carefully on the evidence" he had concluded that it was "possible that this child's death was a tragic accident", and sentenced Otte to five years in prison followed by twenty years on probation.
The story of the death of Joseph Lewis Martinez might well sound strangely familiar to many ears as the Urban Myth industry has recorded a number of what are known as 'roast baby legends' which generally feature such themes as parental neglect and drug induced behaviour which result in a child being baked alive, the most famous of which is the story of the Hippie Baby-Sitter first recorded by William J Kreidler in 1971.
In this tale the parents engage a baby-sitter who proceeds to get stoned on LSD, angel dust or whatever narcotic substance is in vogue at the time. During the course of the evening the mother telephones the baby-sitter to ask how things are. The baby-sitter says that everything is wonderful and what's more she decided to be extra helpful and put the turkey in the oven to roast. The mother puts the phone down, but then realises a few moments later that she hasn't got a turkey, and rushes home, either a) in the nick of time to save her infant or b) to discover her roast progeny laid out on the dining table ready to be carved. In other versions of the tale there is a turkey and a baby and the spaced out baby-sitter simply mistakes one for the other. The mother returns to the smell of cooking in the house, and finds the turkey in the baby's crib.
Of course, this wasn't a new story in 1971, and there was a verion of the 'Hippie Baby-Sitter' doing the rounds in Argentina in 1949, well before anyone had even dreamt up the concept of the Urban Myth. This tale, which was apparently all the rage at Buenos Aires in June 1949, featured a couple who went out for the evening and returned only to find that their servant had cooked their child. The wife went mad, whilst the husband shot the servant and then disappeared never to be seen again. It wasn't new in 1949 either, as there was a version from Papua New Guniea recorded in 1910. No doubt there are event older versions of the tale, it's simply that no one had a good reason at the time to record their existence.
Originally these tales all featured conventional ovens, but as the microwave version became a commonplace feature of the domestic kitchen during the 1970s the latter became more popular, if only because microwave ovens cook that bit quicker and so expanded the narrative possibilities, or at least made the construction of such tales slightly less artificial. There are of course, definite echoes of the Urban Myth in the the case of Elizabeth Otte, as even though it features a befuddled epileptic mother rather than a spaced out baby-sitter, the end result was sadly the same.
One might nevertheless have concluded that this example of the synchronicity of legend and reality was nothing more than happenstance, and that surely nothing of the like would ever reoccur. Until that is one comes across the story of Paris Talley, the daughter of Terrell Talley and China Arnold of Dayton, Ohio. It was on the 30th August 2005 that China Arnold brought her apparently unconscious month-old baby to the Children's Medical Centre in Dayton, only to find that the medical staff duly pronounced baby Paris dead at 7.30 am that morning. Ms Arnold was briefly arrested on suspicion of being involved in her child's death, but was soon released pending further investigation.
The enquiry into the death of Paris Talley subsequently concluded that the cause of death was hyperthermia, in that she had "suffered high-heat internal burns but had no external marks" and that such injuries could have only been caused by her being placed into a microwave oven. The authorities returned to the Talley household and removed the microwave oven as evidence, although as Ken Betz from the county coroner's office in Montgomery, Ohio, noted, "there is not a lot of scientific research and data on the effect of microwaves on human beings". China Arnold was later re-arrested on the 27th November 2006 and charged with aggravated murder on the 7th December 2006.
This time round there was a baby-sitter. It being the case that the child's father Terrell Talley had left their house and placed baby Paris with a baby-sitter for a short time on the evening of the 29th August. China Arnold claimed that when she returned to take charge of her daughter she hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary until she found the child unconscious on the following morning, and thus blamed the baby-sitter. Terrell Talley was however adamant that the "baby sitter ain't had nothing to do with it".
Arnold's first trial was brought to a premature end in February 2008 when a man came forward and said that his son had seen another boy put Paris Talley in the microwave. A mistrial was declared, and everyone was forced to start again a few months later in August 2008. At both trials China Arnold pled not guilty to the charge of aggravated murder and her defense was largely based on the argument that she could not have been responsible for the murder of her child because she was passed out drunk at the time. And if it wasn't the baby-sitter that did it, then the unnamed boy must have done so.
At the second trial the unidentified boy, who was apparently five years old at the time, testified that he'd seen an older boy put the baby in the microwave and punch in two minutes on the timer. However a number of witnesses, including the boy's mother, contradicted his account of events, and claimed that he was nowhere near the Talley household on the day in question. In any case, the prosecution had a string of witnesses, all of whom had been fellow inmates of Arnold at the Montgomery County Jail, and were now prepared to testify that she had admitted to the crime. There were two named Ashley Parks and Jeanyne Hutchins who claimed that that Arnold had told them "I didn't mean to do it", and another named Linda Williams, who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with Arnold, and that Arnold had told her she'd had an argument with Terrell Talley about whether he was indeed the biological father of baby Paris, and confessed to putting her daughter in the microwave because she feared that her boyfriend would otherwise have left her if he had discovered that he was not the baby's father.
China Arnold was convicted of aggravated murder on the 29th August 2008, although the jury was unable to agree on a sentencing recommendation and so escaped the death penalty. This time around however there was no question of the crime being a "tragic accident", and on the 8th September 2008, Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Mary Wiseman delivered her verdict, and after describing the crime as an "heinous atrocity" that was "beyond all human and moral comprehension"; she sentenced Arnold to life in prison without parole.
Nevertheless China Arnold has continued to insist that she is "innocent of these charges" and is seeking a new trial on the grounds that Linda Williams, one of the witnesses who testified against her, has now claimed that she lied under oath and was assaulted by an investigator from the Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office.
- Craig Timberg, Mother Charged in Baby's Death, Washington Post, Tuesday, September 28, 1999
- Josh White, Va. Mother Convicted Of Death in Microwave, Washington Post, Tuesday, September 26, 2000
- Maria Sanminiatelli, Woman gets 5 years in prison for killing baby in microwave, The Associated Press
- The trial of China Arnold
- Paris Talley 2008 - 2008
- Life for microwave baby killer, BBC News, 9 September 2008
- The chapter The Baby Roast as a New American Urban Legend from The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story by Jan Harold Brunvand and Erik Brunvand, (University of Illinois Press, 2001) thanks to Google Books