“Ungodly Sick”

Marie Noe pleads, but the story still isn’t over.

THE MONDAY MORNING CALL from the D.A.’s office is rushed. “Be in court at 11,” I’m told. “Mrs. Noe is going to plead. But come in quietly, after the hearing begins. If she sees you, she might get spooked out of signing.” The deal has been in the works for months, and there are only two things left for the 70-year-old woman to do: stand up in front of a judge and admit, at last, that she smothered eight of her babies, and sign her name on the plea agreement.

In the courtroom, Marie Noe rises from behind the defense table, steadying herself on a cane. Several rows back sits her 77-year-old husband, Arthur, his face reddening before he breaks down weeping.

Deputy district attorney Charles Gallagher tells the judge that due to the “peculiar circumstances” of the Noe case, the D.A.’s office recommends a sentence of 20 years probation – the first five to be served under house arrest – along with intensive mental health treatment sessions to figure out why Marie killed her kids.

As the judge and Noe recite the colloquy of her plea agreement, it dawns on me that she will walk out of the courtroom ad go back home. She will still be able to make Arthur his dinner tonight. Arthur will probably continue to believe his wife is incapable of murder. He will probably still blame all their legal troubles on me, because I wrote the story that reopened the case [“Cradle to Grave,” April 1998] and led to Marie Noe’s confession. If Marie tries to tell Arthur the truth, he will probably interrupt her, as he always does.

But here in court, Marie Noe is speaking for herself. As the prosecutor lays out the case he would have made had she not pleaded guilty, the words from her various confessions are finally made public. It turns out that in March of 1998, she told homicide detectives that she had vivid recollections of smothering at least three of her babies: “Elizabeth was a lot stronger than Richard was,” she explained, “and she was fighting when the pillow was over her face.”

In her confession, she said she had hoped police would find out about the murders, because “I knew what I was doing was very wrong.” When asked if there was any reason why she had harmed her kids, she said, “All I can figure is that I’m ungodly sick.” But detectives could only have so much sympathy: During much of her interrogation, she referred to each child as “it” and had to be forced repeatedly to use the babies’ names.

The judge asks Noe for her plea. “Guilty,” she says, loud and clear. “Where do I sign?” And in that moment, justice is finally served.

The judge accepts the D.A.’s sentencing recommendation and then asks Noe’s attorney, David Rudenstein, if he has anything to add. Of course, he does, which is just one of the many complexities underlying the unusual sentence. Trying Marie Noe 30 years too late would have been difficult: there’s no physical evidence, her confession could have been thrown out, she has a history of mental illness, and when the babies originally died, she was repeatedly investigated and exonerated. And Rudenstein, who has a reputation for courtroom antics, also could have turned the trial into a circus. Offering a taste of how it might have been, he sends the hearing into a surreal tailspin by using his time to thank his wife, announce he has a new job and acknowledge his new partners — who just happen to be in the courtroom. All around him, eyes roll.

And then, it is over. In the back row, homicide investigators are shaking hands and backslapping. In front of the bar, prosecutors are calmly pleased. Arthur’s head is bowed; Marie’s is held high. She appears relieved.

Outside the courthouse, the cameras wait. Noe’s confession is international news. The majority of the attention focuses on outrage over the lack of jail time. Few seem interested in the rare achievement of getting a confession in a cold, 30-year-old case. There is little fascination over the prospect of this psychiatric sentence, in which Noe has agreed to become a real-time teaching case — in effect, to donate her brain to science before death. All anyone wants to know is, how can a big-city D.A. let Marie Noe go home with an ankle bracelet and a therapy appointment?

While I’m surprised there wasn’t some period of incarceration in a locked psychiatric unit, I can’t muster any outrage over Noe’s sentence. Neither can anyone else I speak to who was involved with the reinvestigation of the case. I’ll be outraged only if the probation department doesn’t follow through on the ambitious promises, made by the D.A.’s office at sentencing, that the money that would have been used to prosecute and jail Noe will be spent to further knowledge of her psychiatric condition.

Since then, the probation department has been mum on its efforts, which are being directed by Court of Common Pleas forensic psychiatrist John O’Brien. He’s gathered a large group of experts, including Philadelphians Robert Sadoff, Stephen Ludwig, Richard Kluff and Steven Samuel and national figures such as Munchausen expert Marc Feldman, from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Stewart Ash, from Columbia University. But it is unclear if there is a budget for this research, or whether the experts will donate their time. It’s also unclear how the information will be shared with the public.

In the meantime, I wonder if Arthur Noe finally believes his wife did it. D.A. Charlie Gallagher thinks maybe he does, reporting that after the sentencing, Noe approached somebody and said “Thank you.” But Joe McGillen, whose 30-year-old files allowed the case to be reinvestigated, had a completely different experience only moments later. He approached Noe with his hand extended, saying, “I wanted you to know, sir, that you are in my prayers, and my heart goes out to you.”

Noe seemed grateful, until he realized who McGillen was. “You know she didn’t harm those children,” Noe barked. “Don’t you think that if for one moment I thought she did anything to those children, I would have thrown her out?”

© 1999 Stephen Fried