A mother is found guilty, but what to do?

The prosecutor said the case gave him no joy. The judge said he was pleased that the jury, and not he, had to make this hard call. The defence counsel said “gambling dens” were the real culprits.

And the accused stayed mute, but for her quiet weeping.

But when court adjourned after she was convicted of manslaughter, Jie Hua Yu, the mother whose toddler died of heatstroke after being left in a hot car while she played the pokies, sat sobbing, her head on her husband’s shoulder.

Her younger sister Yali, who had testified that Yu was a good and loving mother, wept in an alcove outside the courtroom.

It was the end of a long and, all parties acknowledged, tragic story.

It began on February 16 last year, when Yu, after dropping an older child at school, decided to stop off for 20 or 30 minutes’ play at a local gambling venue, the Ferntree Gully Hotel.

She left the second of her three children, 19-month-old Brian Yao, strapped in the car in an unshaded area of the hotel car park.

He was asleep, she later explained to police, and she thought she wasn’t going to be inside for long.

Two-and-a-half hours later, Yu’s husband, Benny Yao, woke at their home in Kelvin Drive, Ferntree Gully, and realised his wife and child were gone.

He arrived at the hotel looking for her. The couple found Brian unconscious and took him straight to a nearby hospital.

He arrived blue and convulsing.

Despite an emergency transfer to the Royal Children’s Hospital, he was later declared brain dead and was removed from life support on February 22.

Yu was charged with having killed him through criminal negligence.

This Supreme Court case was a quiet one. Barristers did not shout or bluster. Medical witnesses kept descriptions of distressing facts to a minimum. It was as if no one wished to add to the suffering that Yu had already endured.

Yu, a 40-year-old housewife, arrived each day dressed in unadorned suits with her face bare of makeup. She sat next to her Cantonese interpreter, her head bent to one side as she listened to the swift translation of legal exchanges. Had it not been for the misery etched on her face, they would have looked like girlfriends exchanging confidences.

Yesterday Yu’s defence counsel, Brian Burke, argued that this good and loving mother should not be branded a killer. He said her conduct did not deserve to be punished as a crime. He asked jurors to put themselves in her place.

He blamed the gambling industry for “wreaking havoc” on innocent people. “It’s a great pity it’s not the gambling dens on trial, isn’t it? They are not on trial; got the sanctity and blessing of governments from top to bottom.”

The prosecutor, Paul Coghlan, QC, told the jury that love and negligence were not mutually exclusive. He argued that leaving a small child locked in a hot car for two-and-a-half hours “so terrifically” breached Yu’s duty of care to her son that it called for the intervention of the criminal law.

“The question you will have to address is whether it can ever be said to be not unexcusable to leave a child in this sort of car, in this sort of car park, on this sort of day, for two-and-a-half hours. It’s just not on … for proper contemporary standards … Lines should be drawn.”

The jury took two hours to conclude that Mr Coghlan was right.

Justice Bernard Teague adjourned the sentence for a date to be fixed. He said he would consider punishments that did not involve prison.

First published in The Age.

Also see A Gamble With Life and Ending The Affair.