Closing arguments expected in Butcher murder trial

Jurors shown videotape of 15-month-old girl after testimony is concluded

March 07, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Testimony in the murder trial of North Laurel day care provider Kathleen A. Butcher, charged with the death of a 15-month-old Columbia girl, ended yesterday with a contradiction.

After more than two days of defense witnesses who said Alexa Shearer was an unemotional, unresponsive, sickly child in the months before her death, prosecutors offered a last videotape image: Alexa, with a glob of food on her nose and a broad grin on her face as she ate in her highchair.

Recorded July 1, 1999, the tape was the last exhibit after more than two weeks of testimony in Howard County Circuit Court in a case expected to hinge on conflicting medical experts' opinions about the timing and severity of the girl's injuries.

The conflicting images of Alexa lie at the heart of a dispute over the timing of the injuries that could point toward or away from Butcher as the killer of the child.

Prosecutors offered testimony that a healthy Alexa, acting normally in the hours before she went into cardiac arrest Nov. 16, 1999, would have been almost immediately incapacitated by her injuries.

Defense lawyers have presented experts who said chronic illness could have masked symptoms of a brain injury.

Closing arguments are expected to begin this morning, with jury deliberations after that.

Over the past 2 1/2 weeks, prosecutors have built their case by a process of elimination and through medical testimony.

Butcher, 37, was the only adult in her Sewall Avenue day care when Alexa suffered cardiac arrest.

In addition, police said Butcher told them the girl was acting normally -- even eating two meals -- before she stopped breathing. Alexa was declared brain dead two days later.

Dr. Jonathan Arden, Washington's chief medical examiner, determined that Alexa died of blunt force trauma to the head by impact and shaking and said the injuries were so severe that she would have been symptomatic almost immediately -- and certainly would not have been in the mood to eat a meal.

Still, prosecutors could offer no eyewitness accounts; the other children in Butcher's care that day were 5 and younger.

Defense attorneys painted a picture of a sickly child whose parents sent her to day care even when she was running a fever. They repeatedly questioned detectives about their decision to hone in on Butcher as the sole suspect -- to the exclusion of everyone else, even Alexa's parents -- the day that Arden ruled Alexa's death a homicide.

They also offered medical experts critical of how Arden conducted the autopsy and of his decision to allow a transplant team to remove some of Alexa's organs before autopsy.

One expert, Dr. Jack Daniel, disputed prosecution witnesses' timing of the injuries: The head trauma could have occurred before Alexa was dropped off at Butcher's care and symptoms of the injury could have been masked by a chronic infection, Daniel said.

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