Crime

Mother Who Confessed To 54-Year-Old Murder Won't Face Charges

| by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

After 54 years, Janice Summerfield of Battle Creek, Michigan, has come clean about the death of her son, William Summerfield III.

On May 29, 1961, Summerfield, now 78, smothered 8-month-old William. Summerfield confessed to her daughter, Paula Gastian, 55, in September. Gastian went to Calhoun County Sheriff Department Detective Steve Hinkley, who opened an investigation into the case.

Summerfield also confessed to Hinkley, but Chief Assistant Calhoun County Prosecutor Daniel Buscher has decided not to file murder charges against the senior citizen.

"Based on inconclusive medical results, I am not comfortable at this time proceeding," Buscher said on June 12. "We have many cold cases that are 25 or 30 years old, but in this case the scientific evidence made it very difficult. We wanted to do the right thing because we only have one chance at prosecution.”

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Summerfield also confessed to reporters at the Battle Creek Enquirer. "I killed that baby. My mind wasn't right. I killed that baby. I didn't know what I was doing,” she said in a phone interview.

William’s body was exhumed on October, but despite Summerfield’s confession, there wasn’t enough evidence that a homicide occurred.

"The body was so degraded we had a rough time having any conclusion as to what caused the death," Buscher said. “(Medical examiner Dr. Joyce deJong) was not comfortable based on the medical evidence that is available to call it a homicide. Unless that is cleared up now or there is further testing later on, I would technically deny it at this point. But they are free to submit it with any new evidence. But at this time I am going to deny it.”

Summerfield blamed her son, Phil, who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama, for William’s death. He was 4 1/2 when he woke up next to his infant brother’s body.

"It's crappy news," he said upon learning charges would not be brought against his mother. "I was shy of 5 years old. I woke, and he was dead," he told the Battle Creek Enquirer last year. "I picked him up and took him downstairs. She told me it was my fault."

Phil, now 58, said he lived with the guilt until his mother confessed. 

Summerfield’s other children were disappointed with the decision. "I don't feel like anything was really accomplished,” said Mike Summerfield, 47, of Marshall. "We are done now. With any wound, once it is closed it is going to get better. It's the way it works.”

Buscher said Janice Summerfield was and is possibly mentally ill. "We are also looking at issues of her competency even way back then," Buscher said. "She was seeking treatment then, but because those physicians have passed away it is hard to determine what she was treated for and if she was on medication at the time and if that would affect our decision. And we have to look back at the law then on competency and criminal responsibility."

William’s premature death wasn’t the only one in the family. Three other children died, including twin sisters who died as children and a baby boy who died in Aug. 20, 1961, at Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall. He was 5 days old at the time.

Gastian blames her mother for the death of her twin sisters. Beth Summerfield was 3 months and 15 days old when she died May 1, 1969. Her twin Beth died on Jan. 1, 1970.

Though both of their death certificates list bilateral pneumonitis, lung disease, as the cause of death, Gastian believes her mother was involved. She went to her mother’s nursing home to confront her about the deaths when she confessed to smothering William.

Gastian said that her home life was fraught with abuse. Her mother used drugs and their father, William Summerfield, 86, was absent. William was sentenced to prison in September after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a friend’s child.

Buscher has decided not to exhume the twins’ bodies. "We discussed it, but I am uncomfortable because I don't want to disturb the remains and I don't believe there will be anything there that will cause us to charge or not charge. Our theory is the same, that there was some type of suffocation and there would not be any traumatic injuries to the bodies or brains or any blunt force trauma that would give us a clear indication about cause of death. I just don't think exhuming the bodies of the two girls would shed any more light on the case."

Buscher does not consider the case closed. “We will always consider prosecution,” he said.

Sources: Battle Creek Enquirer, WFMY

Image: Family photo via WFMY