Media storm: Lawyers calmly wait for it
First-degree murder charge is one thing, conviction totally another, they say
The Patriot Ledger
In 2002, Quincy defense lawyer William Sullivan chose his words carefully as he talked to reporters about a client’s arrest on charges that she killed her 2-year-old adopted son at the family’s Braintree home.
“It started off with a crazy allegation,” recalled Sullivan, a former prosecutor. “You have to be calm in the eye of the storm. There is an explosion of negative publicity.”
Sullivan’s comments come in the wake of Michael and Carolyn Riley of Hull being charged with murder, accused of giving their 4-year-old daughter a lethal overdose of pills prescribed to control her hyperactivity.
Although the Rileys have been charged with first-degree murder, Plymouth County prosecutors must now convince a grand jury that the couple should be indicted for the offense that carries a mandatory life term without parole.
“This is a case that’s going to rely heavily on expert and medical testimony,” Sullivan said. “You don’t know if there was clear intent or a mistake. It’s certainly not unforeseeable that they can be indicted for first-degree murder. To get a conviction may be a totally different thing.”
Sullivan’s client in the 2002 Braintree case, Natalia Higier, was indicted for involuntary manslaughter and pleaded guilty. She served one year of a 21/2-year jail sentence.
Like Sullivan, Brockton lawyer Joseph Krowski is no stranger to high-profile cases.
Krowski obtained an acquittal in Bristol Superior Court a few years ago for Karen Robideaux, a member of a religious sect charged with second-degree murder in the death of her 11-month-old son.
Krowski said seeking a change of venue is a good idea, although it is rarely granted. The venue presents a potential argument for appeal if there is a conviction.
In the Riley case, Krowski said he would direct attention toward allegations that the state Department of Social Services ignored warning signs and failed the couple’s daughter, Rebecca.
“I would start firing away at DSS right off the bat,” he said.
Krowski said the Rileys could end up accusing each other while being tried separately.
“As far as first-degree murder, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “You still have to have reckless conduct that rises to malice. I would have all types of psychological tests administered. It’s a valid defense.”
Stephanie Page, a lawyer with the state public defender’s office, and Quincy lawyer Elliot Levine agreed that the prosecutors get an advantage in the public’s eye during the early stages of a case as they try to paint a defendant in a negative way.
“Some of these alleged facts never come out in court,” said Page, who last year successfully defended a former Quincy dominatrix on trial for manslaughter in the death of a client.
“The jury pool is poisoned,” she said. “It makes it an uphill battle to get back on an even playing field. They can indict for anything.”
Levine said when publicity has died down, it is the jury that will decide guilt or innocence based on facts.
Wakefield lawyer J. Daniel Silverman, who has defended clients in Norfolk Superior Court, said he pays no attention to media reports.
“I listen to what my client says and make an individual assessment,” he said. “You have to keep an open mind through the whole process.”
Silverman said it is common for prosecutors to bring more serious charges and then plea bargain for a lesser charge if the case is weak.
Dennis Tatz may be reached at email@example.com.
Recent cases in which parents have been charged with killing their children:
Neil Entwistle, 28, is being held without bail on charges of killing his wife, Rachel, and their 9-month-old daughter in their Hopkinton home on Jan. 20, 2006, shortly after they moved from Carver. He is charged with first-degree murder.
Helen Kirk, 35, of Carver, is charged with strangling her 3-year-old son Justin on March 8, 2005, in the family’s Meadow Street home while her daughter and sister slept in another room. Her lawyer plans an insanity defense.
Michael Moran, 25, of Halifax,
is scheduled for trial in April on charges of first-degree murder in the death of his 7-week-old daughter. He is accused of slamming the baby’s head against a crib railing in September 2003.
In a shaken baby case in Framingham, William Christian was convicted last year of involuntary manslaughter for the death of his 2½-month-old son in 2004. He is serving a sentence of five to seven years.
Michael Burnham, 44, of Holbrook, and Margaret Earle, 41, of Weymouth, were sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for the beating and stomping death of their 21-month-old daughter in a Brockton apartment. The crime occurred in 1985, but they were not charged until 2002. Burnham was convicted of first-degree murder and Earle was convicted of second-degree murder.
Natalia Higier, 49, of Braintree pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2004 in the death of her 2-year-old adopted son two years earlier. Higier tossed the boy in the air and he hit this head on a coffee table. She was sent to jail for a year.
Erin Colleran, a Sandwich resident with no criminal record and no history of domestic abuse, was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison for life in 2003 for strangling her 2½-year-old daughter.
Attleboro cult leader Joseph Robidoux received
a life sentence in 2002 for first-degree murder
for the starvation death of his 11-month-old son in 1999. His wife, who claimed she was psychologically battered, was acquitted of murder in 2004 but convicted of assault and battery.
Michael J. Lyons, 36, of Brockton, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in 2001 for shaking his 2-week-old son to death in 1998. A judge reduced the verdict to involuntary manslaughter, but she was overruled on appeal in 2005.