5 years given in death of of child

Harford woman caring for toddler mistakenly gave him methadone

September 29, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The Harford County woman convicted Wednesday of manslaughter in the death of a toddler who ingested methadone will serve five years in prison.

Elaine Marie Butler, 54, of Darlington was sentenced yesterday to a 10-year sentence with five years suspended and will be placed on supervised probation upon release. Butler, who worked for years as a registered nurse, also was barred from practicing in that profession, either for hire or as a volunteer.

Harford Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron imposed the sentence after hearing statements from relatives of Ashton Preston, the 16-month-old boy who died after Butler mistakenly gave him a children's cup that contained methadone in December 2004.

Referring to the fact that Butler and her husband took in the boy and his mother during difficult times, Waldron said he considered the defendant's "caring in an age marked by uncaring."

"However, she committed a serious criminal wrong," the judge said. "She acted negligently and criminally, and a child died."

Timothy Preston and Sharon Preston, the boy's father and grandmother, recounted their memories of the child and urged the judge to impose the maximum 10-year penalty.

Butler's family and friends pleaded for leniency.

Butler took in Ashton and his mother, Kelley Jean Briggs, a heroin addict, when the heat in Briggs' trailer failed. Briggs was using the methadone to treat her heroin addiction.

According to testimony last week, Butler gave the child the cup of liquid. Minutes after he sipped the liquid, Butler said, she was told that the cup had contained methadone belonging to Briggs. Neither she nor Briggs called for medical help, deciding instead to observe the child. Butler then cooked dinner, watched television and fell asleep, awaking later to find the child unresponsive, according to testimony during the trial.

Ashton died of a methadone overdose; an autopsy revealed the presence of between 15 and 35 milligrams of methadone in his body. A child can be safely given 1 milligram, according to medical officials.

Butler said, "I never meant for this to happen. I have felt sorry since it happened."

Last year, Briggs pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.

"Mrs. Butler was grossly negligent, but that does not make her an unredeeming monster," said Will Abercrombie, Butler's attorney. "Consider the whole person. Focus on her whole life."

Nine character witnesses, most of whom have known her for more than 20 years, spoke on behalf of Butler, reiterating that she was a caring person who went out of her way to help others.

"This society threw Kelley away," said Cynthia Farquhar, clinical director of Personal Touch, a Towson health care agency where Butler recently did clerical work. "The Butlers didn't deny this mother and son."

Timothy Preston's family said they made many attempts to obtain custody of the child, but Briggs refused to give him up.

Salvatore Fili, assistant state's attorney, said the character witnesses were "asking the court to take a myopic view of the defendant's life."

"We conceded from the get-go that she had good intentions," Fili said. "No one accused her of a malicious heart but of willfully ignoring her training and allowing a child to languish and die."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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