Mother goes free in '72 death

Woman pleads guilty to manslaughter 33 years after son, 5, died

November 15, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Thirty-three years after her 5-year-old son died in his Woodlawn home and a year after an e-mail from another son led police to charge her with murder, a woman went free with no jail time after pleading guilty yesterday to manslaughter.

Diane B. Coffman, 58, now of Deland, Fla., received a five-year suspended sentence and five years of unsupervised probation from a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge who characterized the case as "extremely difficult."

"Frankly, from what I know of this case," Judge John G. Turnbull II said during yesterday morning's brief court hearing, "I can't conceive of 12 individuals [on a jury] all agreeing one way or another on this case."

By entering an Alford plea to manslaughter and child abuse charges, Coffman did not admit guilt in her son's death but conceded that prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict her at trial.

Coffman told police in 1972 that her son Edward had fallen in the bathtub of their Woodlawn home and hit his head while arguing over some toys with his younger brother. She called police at 4:30 the next morning - about 12 1/2 hours after his fall - when she discovered he was not breathing.

An autopsy later that day, Aug. 4, 1972, revealed "severe swelling of the brain" and 17 different injuries in various stages of healing, including bruises under his right eye and on his left temple and open lacerations that showed no evidence of care, prosecutor Sue Hazlett told the judge. The medical examiner classified the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head with the manner of death undetermined.

With no fresh evidence but the e-mail from Edward's younger brother, Richard A. Coffman, investigators asked the state medical examiner to take another look at the autopsy results and police reports from 1972. On Oct. 20, 2004, Dr. David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, reclassified the 5-year-old's death as a homicide.

Given the boy's head injuries, Hazlett told the judge, Fowler determined that the boy would have lost consciousness within 30 minutes to two hours of his fall. Coffman had told police that she gave her son ice for his face, fed him dinner and then put him to bed with his siblings at 8:30 p.m. - about 4 1/2 hours after his fall.

"The time frame described by the defendant back in 1972 was impossible," the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney Dominic R. Iamele told the judge that none of the state's witnesses - from the police detectives to the chief medical examiner and other medical experts in pediatrics - could have attributed Edward's injuries to his mother.

"They would be unable to say who inflicted those wounds, if they were, indeed, inflicted," Iamele said. Of the 17 wounds documented in the autopsy report, at least six, the defense attorney said, were typical of scrapes found on the elbows and knees of most children.

"At the end of the day, the state would not have been able to prove who, what, where, when or how this child died," the defense attorney told the judge.

He also presented to the judge two medical studies on the interval between injuries and the onset of serious symptoms that he said called into question Dr. Fowler's assertion that Edward would have lost consciousness within two hours of his fall.

"No one can tell you this child did not fall in a bathtub," Iamele said.

Hazlett, the prosecutor, said that any decades-old case can be difficult to prosecute.

"I understand exactly why the judge did what he did," she said of Turnbull's sentence. "It's been 30-odd years since this happened. I understand she's lived her mitigation for however long she's lived a crime-free life. She knows what she did and she'll have to come to terms with that in her own fashion."

The case had been scheduled to go to trial yesterday.

With Diane Coffman sitting at the defense table, more than a dozen of her friends and relatives seated behind her, and the two Baltimore County cold-case detectives who reopened the investigation into Edward's death - Philip G. Marll and James W. Tincher - sitting across the courtroom, prosecutors and the defense attorney scurried in and out of the courtroom and huddled in the hallway for a last round of plea negotiations.

When Diane Coffman's husband of more than 40 years, Ron, returned to the courtroom and flashed a thumbs-up, it became clear that a plea agreement had been reached.

Absent from court was Richard Coffman, the Baltimore man and youngest of the Coffmans' three sons, whose e-mail to police in July 2004 prompted detectives to reopen an investigation that had been closed in September 1972. The 36-year-old Baltimore man died last month after a long illness, his father said.

Ron Coffman attributed his son's e-mail message to police last year to "progressive dementia," saying, "It eats away at your mind and makes you think things that aren't true." Ron Coffman said that in the days before his youngest son's death last month, Richard Coffman told his parents, during a visit, "Mom, tell your attorney that whatever I can do to get you out of this, I will do."

Stricken with a sore throat and a hacking cough, Diane Coffman declined to comment after the hearing. Her husband, however, said they were glad to see the case end without his wife going to jail.

"It's like the world was taken off our shoulders," Ron Coffman said. "It's been a very sad time of our lives and a pretty stressful year."

"We had just finished dinner and there was a knock on the door and our whole world was turned upside down," he said of his wife's arrest last November. "We're looking forward to trying to get our lives back in order."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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