Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner said he found the conclusion unfathomable: that a mother, however destitute, could purposely starve to death her infant over two months.

But that is for a jury to decide, Lerner said Thursday in denying a defense request to remove first-degree murder from the charges against Tanya Williams, 33, accused of fatally starving one of her twin boys last year while they lived in a West Philadelphia homeless shelter.

Defense attorney Gregory J. Pagano argued that at best, the case was third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter, not first-degree - the premeditated and malicious killing of another.

First-degree murder carries a sentence of death by lethal injection or life in prison without parole, though Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Juliano Coelho said her office would not seek the death penalty against Williams. Third-degree murder carries a 20- to 40-year prison term.

"It's almost impossible for a human being - at least this human being - to get their head around the fact that a mother . . . would deliberately set out to starve her child to death," Lerner said.

Nevertheless, Lerner added, that was one possible explanation for the Dec. 23 death of 2-month-old Quasir Alexander and the dehydrated, malnourished condition of brother Quamir.

Williams and her four other children were living at the Lutheran Children and Family Service shelter in West Philadelphia when the twins were discharged into her care about Oct. 21.

A week later, according to earlier testimony, a nurse hired by the city's Department of Human Services to make postpartum visits to mothers receiving city welfare services warned Williams that the twins were losing weight and needed to see a doctor.

Pagano argued that it took a team of doctors and nurses to stabilize Quamir in the emergency room. If that took a team of medical experts, Pagano asked, how could an ill and poorly educated mother of four older children recognize a mortal illness in her newborn twins?

Coelho argued that the solution to the twins' problem did not require a doctor, just a bottle of formula.

"This happened over a sustained period of time," Coelho said. "She continually failed to feed this baby. This woman only had to give him a bottle. . . . There was an ample amount of formula."

In January, Lutheran Children and Family Service fired the caseworker and her supervisor after an internal investigation. Williams' five surviving children are now in foster care.