Jury in fatal overdose deliberates

Prosecutors say woman failed to aid toddler to whom she mistakenly gave methadone

March 16, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Jurors in the trial of a Darlington woman charged in the death of a 16-month-old who drank methadone are to continue deliberating today in Harford County Circuit Court after they were sent home late last night.

Elaine Marie Butler, 53, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and being an accessory after the fact for giving Ashton Timothy Preston a lethal dose of methadone that she said she thought was strawberry juice in 2004.

After deliberating for four hours, jurors told Judge Stephen M. Waldron at 8:30 p.m. that they had not reached a unanimous verdict on the involuntary manslaughter charge. They were told to continue deliberating, which they did until they were sent home shortly before 11 p.m.

Prosecutors say Butler, a registered nurse, was careless when she pulled the unrefrigerated cup out of a cabinet and gave it to the boy without being certain of its contents. But they said her involvement escalated to criminal negligence when she ignored the signs of an overdose and failed to seek help after realizing the child had ingested methadone.

"She squandered the last two hours of this child's life," Assistant State's Attorney Salvatore Fili said in closing arguments yesterday.

Defense attorney Will Abercrombie Jr. told jurors that Butler was a caring individual who took a troubled woman and her child into her home. They had formed a relationship after meeting at church and considered one another family, he said.

"Do you think that person, for one moment, if she was conscious of the risk, would not have immediately sought treatment?" said Abercrombie, calling the incident a "tragic accident."

Butler did not take the stand during the five-day trial, and her attorney called no witnesses after an unsuccessful move for acquittal after the prosecution rested its case.

The boy's mother, 23-year-old Kelley Jean Briggs, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter last month and was ordered to serve five years in prison.

According to court records, Briggs, who was taking methadone for a heroin addiction, left the substance in the child's cup 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, the documents say.

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. Later, the boy drank juice and played with his toys as if he were fine but was put down for a nap when he began stumbling, the detectives said.

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.

Abercrombie said Butler worked in hospice care, and he argued that the state provided no evidence that she understood the side effects of narcotics.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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