Reduction in term is denied in death of 15-month-old

In her request to judge, ex-care provider claims family has `deteriorated'

North Laurel

October 16, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

In the 2 1/2 years since former North Laurel day care provider Kathleen A. Butcher was convicted of killing a 15-month-old girl in her care, her family has "deteriorated," Butcher's lawyer said yesterday.

Two of her five children have refused to visit her in prison, one has become a "very bossy and aggressive" mother figure to her siblings and the youngest, a 2-year-old girl born after Butcher was incarcerated, calls another woman "Mama," attorney William C. Brennan Jr. said. The eldest, an 11-year-old boy, is withdrawn and depressed, he said.

"It hasn't destroyed the family unit, but it's getting close," Brennan said as he urged Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. to reduce Butcher's 10-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and child abuse convictions in the death of Alexa Shearer in November 1999.

But Kane said that although he does not doubt that Butcher's children are suffering, the sentence was "appropriate" and will stand.

Yesterday's hearing in Circuit Court was the first for Butcher since her sentencing in August 2001.

But despite the passage of time, the raw emotion - anger and despair - that pervaded the 12-day trial in February and March 2001, and again during a daylong sentencing five months later was on display yesterday.

Friends and family of the Butchers and the Shearers crowded the benches in the courtroom, some sniffling during the proceeding. Butcher's family and friends continued to proclaim her innocence just as vehemently as Alexa's family asserted her guilt.

Later, Alexa's parents, Victoria and Kevin Shearer, issued a statement critical of Butcher's attempt to reduce her sentence.

"This hearing is just the latest in a long line of attempts by Kathy Butcher to try to obtain sympathy and paint herself as some sort of martyr," they said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Kathy Butcher is a coldblooded killer who abused and killed our baby with impunity."

But Butcher's husband, Duke, said the legal system failed his family.

"They put an innocent woman in jail," he said. "My kids are suffering now."

Butcher, 40, was caring for eight children in her home-based day care on Sewall Avenue on Nov. 16, 1999, when Alexa stopped breathing. The little girl, who was the younger of the Shearers' two daughters, was taken off life support two days later.

A medical examiner determined that Alexa died of blunt-force trauma to the head by shaking and impact. Prosecution experts testified that the injuries were so severe and traumatic that she would have shown symptoms immediately after the injuries were inflicted.

Despite defense arguments that Alexa had not been a healthy child and that the autopsy was too sloppy to be conclusive, jurors convicted Butcher of manslaughter but deadlocked on the more serious murder charge.

Yesterday, Brennan told Kane that Butcher's supporters are "passionate" in their belief that she is innocent.

With his client sitting grimly beside him, her mussed brown hair pulled into a ponytail, Brennan detailed Butcher's involvement in classes and activities at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup and her children's trouble adjusting to life without her.

Butcher "has tried as best she can to make this period of incarceration a positive influence - not only on herself, but on other inmates," he said.

Still, he said, "the impact on her family is starting to become significant."

But prosecutor Danielle Duclaux, who tried the case in 2001, said that although Butcher will be able to go home to her children after serving her sentence, the Shearers will never again see their daughter.

Alexa would have started kindergarten this year, Duclaux told Kane, but the Shearers "don't know if she would have been excited, if she would have been nervous. It's something they could only imagine."

Kevin and Victoria Shearer, who propped large photographs of their daughter on the witness stand as they spoke, said Butcher gave Alexa a "death sentence."

Despite Kane's refusal to reduce her sentence, Butcher appeared to win one concession.

An original commitment order listed her conviction as "manslaughter" but omitted the word "involuntary," Brennan said. During yesterday's hearing, Kane asked Brennan to submit a revised order for him to sign.

Brennan said the change in semantics will make his client immediately eligible for parole.

A person must serve at least half a traditional manslaughter sentence but one-fourth of an involuntary manslaughter sentence for parole eligibility, Brennan said. Butcher has served more than 2 1/2 years of her 10-year sentence.

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