You know, sometimes a criminal defense attorney cannot help but get mad. For example, when a client whom the attorney is absolutely sure is innocent of charges is found guilty of them anyway, I get angry. Or cases wherein one of the many unfairness’s that are built into the criminal justice system raise their ugly heads, my passion is inflamed. Or, more recently, in a Massachusetts superior court, where an absolutely heart-wrenching drama is being played out and suddenly the prosecution and other untrained-yet-self-ordained “experts” announce with “authority” their expectations of human behavior to the detriment of fairness…it drives me nuts.
A four-year-old girl is dead. Her mother, Carolyn R. (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) is on trial for her homicide. Dad, also charged with murder, awaits his turn next.
The purpose of an opening statement in a trial is to give the jury a roadmap of the evidence the lawyer contends it will see during the trial. In this case, the prosecuting attorney gave his opening statement, listing the evidence he expects he will show, thus proving the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Thereafter, the school nurse testified to begin the onslaught of critical evidence.
One of the first things described by both the prosecutor and the nurse? Well, apparently, hours after her daughter died, the Defendant and her husband appeared at the child’s preschool with a “flat” demeanor, asking to pick up her daughter’s things as well as a copy of her class photograph.
What I would be doing to cope? Probably not. I pray to God I never find out, frankly.
The defense attorney, on cross-examination, asked the nurse whether the mother’s lack of overt emotion might reflect her shock that her daughter had died overnight after seemingly having only a bad cold. The nurse, now becoming an expert on human emotion, replied: “Someone in shock wouldn’t be in school looking for pictures.”
“Ok, Sam. We get it. You’re a defense attorney. Nobody’s guilty. But surely that was not all the prosecutor said in his opening statement.”
No, he also went on to further describe that school visit. For example, the Defendant was actually seen talking with her husband and there was actually laughter observed! In fact, the husband took off his hat and put it on his wife’s head!!!
“Well, it is odd behavior under the circumstances, don’t you think, Sam?”
Maybe. But then, I do not have a schemata on how people are supposed to react during such tragic and shocking moments. I will say this, though. If the Defendant were the mastermind of the brilliant scheme which the prosecutor claims, I would expect her to be smart enough not to be acting this way at this time. It tends to raise suspicion, as is now being demonstrated before that jury. I would guess that such odd behavior would actually swing in her favor…were this a different place and time.
After all, a little girl is dead. Somebody must be to blame. Otherwise, how can we sleep at night?
“What was that about the Defendant being the ‘mastermind’ of a ‘brilliant scheme’?”
Oh, well, according to the Commonwealth, the girl’s death was all part of an evil plot on the part of her parents. The state claims that the Defendant was, at least, indifferent to her daughter’s existence. The important thing was the scheme that was created to make money.
You see, the Defendant is said to have complained to people that, at times, her daughter could be vicious and out of control. The prosecutor proclaims that this was not because such a child might actually be unruly at times, but was actually a lie made up so that the child might be percribed medication. When the Defendant and her husband exaggerated her behavioral issues, they obtained a psychiatric diagnosis of bipolar and hyperactivity disorders, which paved the way for disability benefits. At the time the girl died, both parents and her two older siblings qualified for federal disability benefits, largely for psychiatric issues, totaling about $2,700 a month. Had the daughter lived and qualified, the family would receive an additional $630 a month.
So, you see, folks, these evil parents had concocted this lie about their daughter to get the federal benefits. You knoiw the type of funds we are talking about. As I am sure the prosecutor will argue at the close of the case, these are monies provided by you and me by way of taxes! Hey, she was actually defrauding us!
Of course, we can apparently dispense with the observations that the family already had some kind of mental illness in its genes and that, in order to get the medications for the daughter, they had to be smart enough to outwit her physicians.
None of these incidentals seem to bother the Commonwealth. After all, they have the school nurse’s expert opinion on how people really react to such tragedy. I am unaware at this point how many parents who’d just seen their child die this nurse has encountered in her vast experience.
“Wait a minute, Sam. What was that about medication?”
Oh yes. You see these were the weapons which allegedly killed the daughter.
The pills were clonidine, where were prescribed by a physician, apparently fooled by the Defendant’s evil plot. Of course, herein does lie one piece of evidence that could reasonably aid the prosecution in its quest for a guilty verdict. Apparently, the Defendant gave the girl more than was prescribed because of her daughter’s symptoms. Smart? Certainly not. On the other hand…murder?
Well, again, given the prosecution’s theory of the homicide a couple of things do not add up here. For example, one of the expected witnesses is the girl’s physician. She is expected to deliver the bombshell of the increased medication. You may be wondering how she would know about the surreptitious increasing of medication to murder the daughter.
The Defendant told her as she was doing it.
Not very smart for an evil mastermind. You know what else isn’t very smart? Deliberately causing, or being indifferent to, your daughter’s death when the whole purpose behind the scheme it to have her qualify for federal funds to get the family more money. No daughter….no money.
By the way…by all accounts, do you know how the Defendant appears as she witnesses her own homicide trial? Passive and with no expression. Kind of like she is described on the day in question by the prosecutor and the nurse.
I wonder what scheme they figure she is hatching now.
So, as the prosecutor bangs the table and alleges, “She poisoned her own girl to death”, you may be wondering what this has to do with you.
This is your criminal justice system. You may only have a distant relationship with it as a citizen or you may find yourself unfortunate enough to become a participant as either witness or defendant. It is easy to sit back and assume that those accused of crimes are simply guilty because…after all…why else would they be accused? We just had a prosecutor run for higher governmental office, which reminds us that being the district attorney or attorney general is a political office. Given today’s views on criminal justice, prosecutors are judged by how “tough” they are on crime. As an example, just check out my blog on Attorney General Coakley’s critics and how she handled one particular matter.
The district attorney has assistant district attorneys under him/her who handle the cases and make most of the day-to-day prosecutorial decisions.
How do you expect they get rated by their bosses?
Be aware. Think! These issues have a nasty way of worming their way into your home and changing your life.
If you find yourself in such a predicament, you need to protect yourself immediately. You want to have an experienced defense attorney at your side. Get someone who understands these and can use them to protect you, if possible. As always, if you are facing such a scenario and wish to discuss it with me, please feel free to contact me at 617-492-3000.
NOTE: Obviously, I did not cover all the allegations and evidence in this matter as to do so would have produced something more akin to a novella. However, to find the original stories upon which this story is based, please go to http://mobile.boston.com/art/30/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/01/20/mother_of_dead_girl_indifferent_prosecutor_says/ and http://www.dailynewstribune.com/news/state/x201793731/Riley-murder-trial-begins-in-Brockton-court . The video I reference is on the latter site.
Have a great, safe and law-abiding weekend!