Worcester, Massachusetts Murder Defendant Readies His Defense

Readers of my blog know that I’ve posted previously on the horrific story of the beating death of young Nathaniel Turner, a 7 year-old boy from Alabama that came to live with his biological father, Leslie G. Schuler, near Worcester, for the summer. On June 21 2009 – Father’s Day – Schuler allegedly beat the boy so badly that he was left brain-dead. A truly horrific story. The alleged facts of this story call to mind the story of Haleigh Poutre, an 11 year-old girl who was also beaten so badly she was almost disconnected from life support at the request of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (formerly the Department of Social Services.)

Police said Schuler took Nathaniel to the emergency room on June 21, Father’s Day. The boy was unconscious, suffering from traumatic brain injuries, and was placed on a ventilator. Following a medical determination that the boy had been beaten, Schuler was arraigned last week on assault and battery charges. The boy was declared clinically dead last Tuesday, June 30 2009, after evaluation by doctors from the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center’s University Campus in Worcester and Children’s Hospital in Boston. Nathaniel was removed from the ventilator over the following weekend. His organs were harvested for transplantation.

Schuler was then arraigned last week on a murder charge, according to District Attorney Joseph D. Early’s office. Schuler was originally represented at his assault and battery arraignment by a public defender who reportedly is not on a special list of lawyers appointed by the state to represent defendants accused of murder. (That list is known as the “Murder List” at the state agency who appoints lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants, the Committee for Public Counsel Services.) However, Schuler has since been appointed another lawyer who is on the “Murder List”, and that person is the same lawyer who represented the stepfather in the Haleigh Poutre case. Springfield lawyer Alan J. Black was named to take over Schuler’s defense. Black represented the neglectful stepfather in the high-profile Poutre case in 2005.

Though comparisons have been made between the Turner and Poutre cases, Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (MSPCC) to Children, noted that the tragedies are profoundly different. “Haleigh was in a vegetative state and had suffered severe brain injuries,” Sudders said last week. “She was never declared clinically dead by a physician. Being clinically dead means there’s no brain function, and organs are shutting down.” (Nathaniel Turner was declared clinically brain dead.)

People often wonder how any lawyer can represent a defendant charged with murder, or worse, such a horrific crime as this murder. As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I can tell you that the answer lies in the Constitution: Each person accused of a crime in our system of criminal justice is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, and each person is entitled to a vigorous legal defense. That, and an emotional ability to completely separate your personal feelings about the defendant, from your representation of him or her. It’s hardly easy, and it takes a tough stomach. But if you think the system should change, then ask yourself if you’d be willing to be the first one as a criminal defendant to “test” that new system.