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Michelle must pay price, but that's not whole story


MICHELLE SAVAGE cried last week when an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge sentenced her to eight years in prison, great, heaving sobs that elicited little sympathy from those who knew what she had done.

She threw her baby out a window, minutes after it was born. The little girl lives, but with a misshapen skull, hearing problems and a future full of surgeries.

She was, as Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen E. Rogers said, "the most innocent of innocents," thrown away like so much litter.

Eight years is not too high a price for Michelle Savage to pay for that, even if she is only 17 years old, even if she did what she did in a moment of fear and panic, even if now she'd do anything to have that moment back.

Many feel the price is not high enough. Michelle will be only 25 when she's released, assuming she serves the entire sentence. She'll be eligible for parole when she's not quite 21. The baby, meanwhile, will bear the marks of her mother's misdeed long, long after that. Looked at that way, the sentence seems unduly mild.

'Totally callous'

It isn't, though. The judge in this case, Raymond G. Thieme, levied a fair punishment. Michelle Savage committed a crime too horrible for a slap on the wrist.

"Totally callous," he called it. "Inconceivable." Debates about the effectiveness of jail time aside, we live in a society that expects serious crimes to be punished by a prison sentence. If the mistreatment of our smallest, most helpless citizens does not warrant such severity, what crime does?

At the same time, this girl from a West County public housing complex is not the smart, calculating killer prosecutors tried to portray. Her citation once as "student of the month" was used to make her look like a candidate for Princeton. In fact, Michelle Savage is neither an academic nor an idiot, just a girl of limited intelligence who took classes like keyboarding and grew up in a society whose problems are wholly foreign to most of us.

Michelle lived at Meade Village with her mother, who earned a living as a housekeeper and maintenance person for local hotels, several other siblings and their illegitimate children.

Michelle often looked after them. Her father is dead. The family situation appears to have been happier than many. "They ate, played, looked at TV and were each other's friends and best company," says Michelle's lawyer, Evelyn Darden.

Michelle was a homebody, without many friends her own age. The boy who fathered the child she threw away was her first boyfriend, Ms. Darden said. She was conscientious about homework, but no scholar. Her ambition was to graduate from Meade High School; beyond that, she couldn't see.

She was aware, though, Ms. Darden says, that one of the XTC hallmarks of her immediate world -- teen-age pregnancy -- is not something of which to be proud.

Meade's problem

There is a reason why Meade High is the only school in AnnArundel County with a day care and special program for teen mothers: Illegitimacy rates in the projects near Fort George G. Meade soar off the charts. When teen-age girls point to this boy or that, they don't say, "There's my boyfriend." They say, "That's the father of my child."

Teen-age pregnancy is the norm here, yet somehow, Ms. Darden says, Michelle knew it should not be. When she turned 17 without being pregnant, she was proud. "She wanted to be different. She knew that being 17 and not pregnant made her different, and she liked that," Ms. Darden says.

Michelle didn't not tell anyone she was going to have a baby because she was afraid of the stigma. She had no reason to fear her neighbors would look down on her, or that her mother -- who, after all, kept her other daughters' children under her roof -- would throw her out.

She didn't tell because she was ashamed for herself.

"I know a lot of people may find that difficult to believe," Ms. Darden says. "Why would she feel shame if that is the norm? But she did feel shame. She viewed not being a pregnant teen-ager as something very special. It was a big, big deal to her."

Who knows how much Michelle knew about the physical facts of giving birth? However much or little, anyone who has been through the blood and violence of the birth process shouldn't find it so hard to understand why, when the baby came in an upstairs bedroom with no one else around, she panicked.

Throwing the baby out the window wasn't a "calculated decision," as prosecutors claimed; it was an irrational decision, made by a not-too-bright teen-ager whose fear at that moment was greater than her appreciation of human life.

She must suffer for that. Hopefully, however, the prison system will do more for Michelle Savage than warehouse her for eight years. She is more tragic than evil. Punishment is important in this case. But so is rehabilitation.

So is redemption.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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