Doctor, nurse testify about child's death

March 11, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Seated in the back of the courtroom, 77-year-old Veronica Morrison leaned back in her chair during a break in the trial of a friend and fellow member of her Edgewood church. She looked toward the ceiling, a woven hat resting atop her head.

"She needs you, Jesus, she needs you," Morrison whispered.

Morrison's friend, Elaine Marie Butler, is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment after giving 16-month-old Ashton Timothy Preston a lethal dose of methadone that she said she thought was strawberry juice.

During the third day of testimony yesterday in Harford County Circuit Court, two medical professionals testified about emergency procedures and the harmful effects of methadone, a drug prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts. Prosecutors say Butler was criminally negligent for failing to act after realizing the substance was methadone.

But friends who sat in on the trial yesterday said Butler, a former church board member who sings in the choir, is unjustly accused. She had met the boy's mother, Kelley Jean Briggs, 23, and welcomed them into her Darlington home, helping them in a time of need.

The boy's death was an accident, they said.

"She was a Good Samaritan, helping the helpless, and look what happens," said Ann Cox, 56, of Aberdeen.

According to court records, Briggs left methadone in the child's cup in a kitchen cabinet on Dec. 15, 2004. Butler later gave it to the thirsty toddler thinking it was juice and realized its contents when the child spit some out and dropped the cup. After dinner, all three took a nap.

Last month, Briggs was ordered to serve five years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the child's death.

Prosecutors said that Butler, a registered nurse, ignored signs of an overdose and should have called 911 or sought other help. Yesterday, a nurse and the program director at Briggs' Aberdeen methadone clinic testified that licensed nurses in Maryland are required to take courses in pain management and critical thinking and said they are trained to recognize changes in consciousness.

"If you administer a medication, then you are responsible for the patient," testified Nancy Turner, of the Medicated Assisted Treatment Technologies clinic.

"What if you didn't know what it was until after you had administered it?" asked Assistant State's Attorney Salvatore Fili.

"Then you better report it," Turner responded.

Dr. Michael A. Veltri, a pediatric pharmacologist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, also testified that he estimated that the boy ingested 15 to 35 milligrams of methadone. A child can be safely given 1 milligram, he said.

Butler told police that she did not seek help because she believed the boy had spit out enough of the substance to avoid harm, two detectives testified Thursday. Afterward, the boy ate dinner and drank juice and played with his toys as if he were fine, the detectives said.

Yesterday, Morrison listened and prayed, walking over to Butler during recesses to offer support.

"I'm trusting the Lord for her," Morrison said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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