Overdose-case mistrial declared

Woman could face 5 years in prison after conviction on lesser charge in child's death

March 17, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The trial of a Darlington woman charged in the death of a 16-month-old boy who was given methadone ended yesterday in a mistrial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, but the woman could face five years in prison after being convicted on a lesser charge.

Jurors found Elaine Marie Butler, 53, guilty of reckless endangerment and not guilty of accessory after the fact. But they deadlocked on a count of involuntary manslaughter after seven hours of deliberations that began Wednesday night, leading Harford County Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron to declare a mistrial.

Outside the courtroom, neither side seemed satisfied with the outcome. Prosecutors said their case was "ongoing," while Butler's husband said an appeal would be filed. He said he was trying to arrange for a corporate bond to bail out his wife.

The mistrial came after jurors sent a note saying deliberations had stalled. "We are unable to reach a decision. We are deadlocked," the note read, with the word "deadlocked" underlined. "Further time will not help."

Ten jurors were pushing for a guilty verdict while two others reserved doubts, said two jurors outside the courthouse.

A week before the trial, Butler rejected a plea agreement that would have brought a three-year prison sentence, maintaining the incident was an accident and that she should not have to go to jail.

Prosecutors agreed the incident was an accident, but they said Butler's actions after realizing the child had ingested the drug escalated to criminal negligence. Butler had given the boy an unrefrigerated drink from a kitchen cabinet, thinking it was juice, then failed to seek help after realizing the Mickey Mouse cup contained methadone.

"She squandered the last two hours of this child's life," Assistant State's Attorney Salvatore Fili told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday.

Butler's attorney contended that the defendant believed the boy had spit out enough of the drug to avoid harm and that the child showed no side effects until he became tired later in the evening. He was put down for a nap and died in his sleep, according to testimony.

Throughout the trial, Butler was mostly expressionless. She frequently embraced her husband, Frank, during breaks in the proceedings, and she prayed with members of her church who in attendance. Butler had met Briggs and her son at church, and they considered one another family.

"Do you think that person, for one moment, if she was conscious of the risk, would not have immediately sought treatment?" said Will Abercrombie Jr. in his closing argument.

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

Fili had several expert witnesses testify that as a nurse, Butler would have been required to have taken courses in pain management and critical thinking. She was trained to recognize changes in consciousness and to seek outside help if she did not know what to do, they testified.

That was beside the point, some jurors said. "I've got a 7- month-old grandson, and if he takes anything other than what I intended to give him, that's a problem," said Peter Labrenz, 52.

Butler's bond was set at $15,000 as she awaits sentencing.

The verdict wrapped up a tumultuous week. The program director at the methadone clinic where Briggs received treatment fell ill during testimony and had to be rushed to the emergency room, postponing the trial for nearly two days. On Wednesday, the jury began deliberations at 4:30 p.m., as the courthouse was closing and continued until 11:30 p.m.

When deliberations resumed yesterday morning in the second-floor jury room, they did so as a jury in another trial overseen by Waldron deliberated down the hall. The verdicts were handed down within minutes of each other.

Among those awaiting the outcome was the boy's father, Timothy Lewis Preston, 23, who attended each day of testimony with his family. They said it was the first time that they learned the details of the child's death. The father was serving a 90- day sentence for driving with a suspended license at the time of the incident and was unable to attend the funeral.

His mother, Sharon Preston, said she was disappointed with the outcome.

"They had everything in front of them to convict on manslaughter, more than enough," she said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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