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Behind the scenes, help for an inmate

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Spring


When a judge in a Danbury courtroom sentenced Panna Krom to 20 years in prison in 2007, her father fainted. He begged their lawyer to argue for a shorter sentence. The judge reduced it to 18 years. Resigned to the sentence, the family fell into a rhythm of frequent phone calls and weekly visits to York Correctional Institute in Niantic. For years, Krom, then only 17, spent most of her allotted 15 minutes on the phone weeping and pleading to come home.

The only daughter of Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge, Krom was a high school junior when she became pregnant. Fearful that her family would disown her, Krom hid her condition. “My parents went through terrible things in Cambodia. They came here for the American dream and when I got pregnant I felt like I ruined it for them,” she said. Krom’s boyfriend wanted her to get an abortion, but it was against her Buddhist faith.

On the evening of December 28, 2006, just weeks after turning 17, alone and bleeding heavily, Krom delivered her daughter in the bathroom of her family’s apartment. Panicked, she drowned the newborn in the toilet. Two days later, her mother found the baby and called police. By the time a lawyer was involved, Krom had signed a confession and would be tried as an adult. Fearing a life sentence for murder, she pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

Devastated, Krom’s parents stood by their daughter. “What she did is not right, but I’m a mom. When this happened I felt like I loved Panna more and more every day,” said Krom’s mother, Chan. The Kroms had no idea how to navigate the legal system and could provide only emotional support. Every Saturday they made the four-hour round trip from their home in Bethel to Niantic for a one-hour visit.

Six years into Krom’s sentence, a fortune-telling relative said that a white man‒“not too tall and not too short”‒would enter their lives. A few weeks earlier, Krom had called her mother to tell her about a man named Doug. “He wants to write my story.” When she finally heard Doug’s voice, Chan Krom knew that this was the man in the fortune-teller’s prediction.

Doug Hood, P.A.-C ’79, first heard of Krom’s case in 2013, when he was testifying on a bill giving second chances to women and teenagers with long prison sentences. Toward the end of the hearing, Hood heard an attorney say, “Panna Krom’s story is one of sadness and shame.” He remembered Krom from the halls at York, where he led a writing group for inmates. She always had a big smile and was one of the prison’s few Asian inmates. “At first, I just wondered whether her story would be interesting to explore, maybe write about,” Hood said.

A physician associate specializing in neurosurgery and neurology for more than 30 years at Yale New Haven Hospital, Hood thought that his background‒he grew up in a military family and spent his school years in Japan and the Philippines, adopted a daughter from China, and married a Chinese woman‒would help.

At the next writing group he asked the inmate sitting next to him if she knew a woman from Thailand (the Kroms’ origins were Thai). To his surprise she said, “Yes, Panna is my cellmate.” Making this unexpected connection allowed Hood to communicate with Krom without speaking with her. “As part of the writing group, we were told not to be advocates,” he said.

Hood met with Krom’s parents and did research on neonaticide, the killing of a newborn within its first 24 hours. With his wife’s help he discovered only five other documented cases of teenage neonaticide in Connecticut. Two teens served no time, one got a suspended sentence and community service, one served seven months, and another served 18 months. “Panna’s sentence was 12 times longer than any other sentence in Connecticut for a similar crime,” Hood said.

Hood shared Krom’s case with Michelle Oberman, J.D., a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California and the author of two books on neonaticide. When she heard the details, Oberman told Hood that Krom was eligible for a clemency petition. He assembled a pro bono legal team, acquired 20 letters of support, and found a team to do a psychiatric evaluation.

Meanwhile, Panna Krom had expressed deep remorse and at her sentencing promised to help other young women dealing with unexpected pregnancies. She was a model prisoner, staying out of trouble and completing two years of college with a 3.4 average.

At Krom’s commutation hearing on September 7, 2016, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, after only seven minutes of deliberation, commuted Krom’s sentence, with a release date of September 30. Hood nearly leapt out of his seat for joy. Her commutation was only the fourth in Connecticut in 30 years.

On the day of release, Krom, now 26, walked out of prison into the arms of her family. She had served nine years, eight months and 26 days of her sentence. She was finally free to acknowledge Hood and the critical role he had played. In the prison parking lot, they hugged and spoke for the first time. Her voice broke as she said, “Doug, how can I ever repay you for what you’ve done?”

Hood plans to help Krom and her family as she transitions to a new life. Krom will be working with the Safe Haven working group. Connecticut’s Safe Haven law allows a responsible adult to leave a baby up to 30 days old with a nurse at any hospital emergency room with no questions asked. Had Krom known about this law when she was pregnant, the lives of everyone touched by this tragedy might have been very different.

“I felt like I got myself into this situation, so I had to figure it out on my own because no one could relate to me. It seemed like everyone else was on the good path and I took the bad path,” she said. “I’m going to advocate for young women. I want them to know about the law and I want be someone they can relate to and talk to, so they won’t feel alone.”