A Howard County jury convicted North Laurel day care provider Kathleen A. Butcher of manslaughter, child abuse and assault yesterday in the death of one of her young charges, but deadlocked on a more serious second-degree murder charge.
Voting to convict Butcher, 37, of manslaughter, jurors agreed that she caused the death of 15-month-old Alexa Shearer more than a year ago. But the seven women and five men could not agree that she had acted with "extreme disregard" for the little girl's life - a requirement for a second-degree "depraved heart" murder conviction.
After 15 hours of jury deliberations over two days, Howard County Circuit Court's largest courtroom was silent as the verdict was read just after 3:30 p.m. Butcher sat as she has through much of the trial - her back straight, staring straight ahead.
Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. immediately revoked her bond and scheduled sentencing for May 22. Butcher, who is pregnant with her fifth child, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison for the child abuse charge and 10 years for the manslaughter conviction.
As sheriff's deputies led Butcher away, her husband, Duke, sobbed, his head in his hands in the first row of the courtroom.
"We've been wrongfully accused," he cried later, as he left the courthouse.
For Alexa's family, the verdict brought some justice; throughout the 2 1/2 -week trial, the girl's family endured accusations that Alexa's parents were neglectful and that the 15-month-old was an emotionless, sickly child.
Girl's mother relieved
Although she said she found it "difficult to accept" that Butcher was not also convicted of second-degree murder, Victoria Shearer said yesterday that she's relieved the jury found the day care provider responsible for her youngest daughter's death and that Butcher is in jail.
The defense tactics, she said, were "offensive." Alexa was a bright child with a big smile, she said.
"She was just a beautiful child who was adored and loved by her family, and there are no words to express the pain we feel that she was violently murdered," Victoria Shearer said, her voice shaking. "I just wish I'd been there that day to protect her."
Yesterday's verdict was the end of a case that has captivated Howard County's Circuit Court for most of the past three weeks because of its complexity.
The case also carried the emotional punch of a trusted day care provider accused in the death of a toddler in her care.
Alexa was one of eight children - all age 5 and younger - in Butcher's Sewall Avenue day care on Nov. 16, 1999, when she went into cardiac arrest.
The child was declared brain-dead two days later; a medical examiner determined that she died of blunt force trauma to the head by impact and shaking.
Through more than two weeks of testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys built their cases around the proclamations of conflicting medical experts.
In the end, it all came down to timing.
Defense claims rejected
Were Alexa's injuries so traumatic, as prosecutors argued, that she would have shown symptoms immediately - and not playing and eating happily, as Butcher told detectives - before going into cardiac arrest? Or was she a sickly child who suffered from a chronic illness that could mask the symptoms of a head injury, as defense attorneys claimed?
The jury apparently agreed with prosecutors and rejected defense claims that the police investigation - which focused early on Butcher as the sole suspect - and the autopsy were too sloppy to be conclusive.
Prosecutors Kim Oldham and Danielle Duclaux said yesterday that they would have liked to have seen a second-degree murder conviction but called the case a "tough" one; they said they were unsure whether Butcher would be retried on the murder charge.
"I'm at least relieved that [the jury] got over the hurdle of `Maybe someone else did it,'" Oldham said.
"They knew that [Butcher] took some action to harm this child. It was just a matter of to what extent," Oldham added.
Defense attorney Joel M. Abramson said he believes there are grounds for appeal.
"I don't think there was justice," he said. "She still claims her innocence, and we're not giving up on that."