A 17-year-old boy is feeding his fiancee's 13-month-old son when thechild spits out his lunch and throws a jar of baby food. Enraged, the teen-ager slaps the boy on the side of the head and the child dies of a concussion.
Is it murder or manslaughter?
That's the question facing an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge.
When a prosecutor and an attorney for the teen-ager found they could agree on the basic facts surrounding the death of Christopher Lewis Krauss but could not agree on what crime had been committed, they decided to leave that decision to Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr.
During a hearing yesterday, Thieme refused to rule immediately; he ordereda psychiatric evaluation for the defendant, Michael Lewis Crockett, now 18 years old, ordered him to stay away from the victim's grandparents and scheduled a hearing for Aug. 23.
Gloria Goldfaden, executive director of People Against Child Abuse Inc., the state's chapter of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, said membersof her group will be in court for next month's hearing. She said shehopes the judge's ruling will show society will not tolerate the abuse and killing of its children.
"We are going to try to do everything we can to show the court how much the community cares about the death of this child," Goldfaden said. "We have hopes that he'll understand that our society in total has been victimized by the death of this child. The slaying of one so young has made us all feel for the loss of a person with such potential."
Goldfaden said she has "graveconcerns" about how Thieme will handle the case because of what she called a pattern of being "overly concerned" with defendants' rights at the expense of victim's rights. Goldfaden, who said she became involved in the case after being contacted by the victim's grandparents,could not immediately provide examples to support her charge.
Thieme declined to respond to Goldfaden's comments.
In court yesterday, Crockett pleaded innocent to charges of first-degree murder and child abuse, but instead of a trial he agreed to Assistant State's Attorney Michael Bergeson's version of the facts leading to the baby's death. Bergeson told the court that Crockett, who is not the baby's father, had for several months lived with his 16-year-old fiancee and her parents in the 215th Street, Pasadena.
The prosecutor said Crockett, who was not working, was the "primary caretaker" for the baby while the fiancee, Erin Lynn McCarthy, went to school and her parents, Walter and Patricia Krauss, worked. He said the fiancee came home about 2 p.m. Jan. 16 and found the baby not moving or breathing.
Attempts to resuscitate the baby were unsuccessful. Young Christopher Krauss was taken by ambulance to North Arundel Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
A day later, Crockett told county policedetectives the child was in his high chair when he threw a jar of baby food and began spitting out his food. "I started to rage and then snapped," Crockett told police, according to a transcript of the interview included in court files.
Crockett told police he "smacked" the child, open-handed, on the head and neck. He said he put the childin its crib and, within five minutes, the mother came home, ringing the doorbell. Crockett said he hid behind a door, playfully intendingto scare his girlfriend. He said they talked for a while before he mentioned sheshould check on the baby, and when they entered the child's room they stopped to slow dance to a song on the radio.
Then they found the baby, not breathing and with no heartbeat, and dialed 911. An autopsy showed the baby had bruises on its face, chest and buttocks.
A report by a psychologist from Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center -- Crockett entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity -- showed Crockett says he has heard voices telling him to kill himself since fracturing his skull about three years ago.The report, which found him competent to stand trial but did not rule on the question of criminal responsibility, shows that Crockett hasbeen a heavy marijuana and PCP user since age 11, and that he used PCP the day of the boy's death.
Assistant Public Defender Kendel L.Sibiski told the court the "huge," "severe" bruise on the baby's cheek may have been caused by a previous fall from its high chair. Sibiski said if the case had gone to trial she would have called as a witness a pathologist who would have disputed Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Ann M. Dixon's autopsy findings.
After the hearing, the child'sgrandparents made no attempt to hide their contempt for Crockett.
"He beat my beautiful grandson to death just because Christopher wouldn't eat chicken noodle soup," said Patricia Krauss. "And that monster had the nerve to sit in my living room and eat chocolate pudding and wait for my daughter to come home and say, 'Erin, you better checkon the baby.' What a monster."
Krauss then produced two photographs of Christopher -- one showing a living, smiling baby, the other showing the boy's body in a casket, a stuffed animal on his stomach. She said her husband, Walter Krauss, suffered a heart attack the day ofthe child's burial and has been disabled since.
Meanwhile, daughter Erin, who wore a black dress to court, followed the handcuffed andshackled Crockett to an elevator. Before sheriff's deputies led Crockett downstairs for the ride to the county Detention Center, where heis being held in lieu of $50,000 bond, Erin and Crockett kissed.
Of the young lovers' ongoing relationship, Patricia Krauss said, "I'magainst it. I've had it out with her so many times it's not even funny. It's like Christopher never mattered. Yet she writes love lettersto this monster." Walter Krauss, who gets around with two canes, satdown on a bench and wept.