Trial in boy's death set to begin

Woman who housed addict is accused of negligence after tot drank methadone

March 05, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The death of 16-month-old Timothy Ashton Preston in 2004 had all the elements of a heartbreaking mistake.

The toddler and his mother, a recovering heroin addict, were taken in by a family they met at church. The mother was taking methadone, some of which wound up in her son's Mickey Mouse cup, according to police reports. Then, police said, the methadone was inadvertently given to the toddler in a deadly dose by the woman they were staying with.

This week, however, prosecutors will try to convince a jury that the death was no mere accident. They say Elaine Marie Butler, 53, a registered nurse who was letting Timothy and his mother stay in her Darlington home, was criminally negligent and allowed the toddler to die after ignoring signs of an overdose.

Butler is charged with involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. She rejected a plea agreement last week and argued that the child's death was unintentional and should not result in prison time. Her trial is expected to begin Wednesday.

Assistant State's Attorney Salvatore Fili said Butler realized the liquid was methadone when the toddler spit it out and dropped the cup on the floor. The child later became drowsy and went to sleep.

"After knowing the child had ingested methadone, who exhibited symptoms which we believe are consistent with methadone overdose, she didn't do anything about it," Fili said. "She didn't perform CPR; she didn't call 911. She allowed the child to lose consciousness."

Butler's attorney, Will Abercrombie Jr., said the incident was a "tragic accident."

"The Butler family are basically good Samaritans who got snared in an unfortunate accident," Abercrombie said. "I just don't see any culpability on her part."

Last month, the boy's mother, Kelley Jean Briggs, 23, of Rosedale, was ordered to serve five years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Police said Briggs left some of the methadone in the child's cup in a kitchen cabinet and that Butler mistook the liquid for juice and gave it to the toddler.

But Fili said subsequent interviews with witnesses have painted a more detailed picture. One witness told prosecutors that Briggs admitted she had been giving the child methadone for teething pain, Fili said.

Butler also told prosecutors that she smelled the strong odor of the liquid when the cup spilled and realized it was not juice as she cleaned it off the floor, Fili said.

The boy became drowsy -- a sign of a methadone overdose -- and fell asleep, the prosecutor said. The others in the house napped, as well. When they woke up, Timothy was not breathing and they called 911. He died that night.

On charges of involuntary manslaughter, the state does not have to prove that Butler intended to kill Timothy but that she committed an act of gross negligence, Fili said.

Methadone is a synthetic narcotic used to ease withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts. People who take methadone are required by federal law to keep the substance in a locked box and out of the reach of children.

According to the Maryland Board of Nursing, Butler has been a registered nurse since 1975. Her license was renewed in November.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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