The trial of Kristen LaBrie was brought to a close earlier this week, with an Essex County jury finding her guilty on each of the four counts that she was charged with: 1) Attempted murder; 2) Assault and battery on a disabled person with injury; 3) assault and battery on a child with substantial injury, and 4) Reckless endangerment of a child, for withholding medication from her son, Jeremy Fraser.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office argued that Jeremy could have survived a treatable case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that he had been diagnosed with in October 2006 when he was 7 years old, but that LaBrie failed to administer chemotherapy treatments. Prosecutors alleged that LaBrie intentionally withheld the medications because she did not wish to care for her son who suffered from autism; in effect, that she attempted to cause his death. By the time his doctors realized the boy was not taking his medication, his condition had advanced to leukemia, and became untreatable. He died at age 9. Prosecutors argued that LaBrie’s failure to administer the prescribed chemotherapy medications was a substantial factor that contributed to the boy’s death, as it allowed the cancer to spread even though it had previously been sent into remission.
LaBrie’s defense had argued that she honestly believed that the medications her son was prescribed were making him more ill than the disease itself, and that she couldn’t bear to see him made so sick by those medications. Her lawyer argued that she suffered from mental exhaustion, and that she made what she believed were the best decisions that she could make, to care for her son. Prior to Jeremy’s death, state child welfare officials removed the boy from his mother’s care, and custody was awarded to the boy’s father, now deceased. However, at that point the boy’s cancer was no longer treatable. The prosecution introduced evidence that after her son’s death, LaBrie acted in a manner inconsistent with a grieving mother; that in fact, she appeared happy and even celebratory.
As a Norfolk County Massachusetts defense attorney, I’m not surprised that this jury found LaBrie guilty on the Massachusetts attempted murder charge. Under Massachusetts case law, it’s inarguably clear that parents have a legal obligation to administer prescribed medications if doing so will reduce the risk of serious harm to the child. Recent cases on some parents’ religious objections to providing medical care to sick children have narrowed this area of law. The most notable of these cases emerged almost two decades ago when Massachusetts manslaughter charges were brought against parents who refused to authorize surgery for their young child, who died from bowel obstruction that could have been treated through surgery. The couple, David and Ginger Twitchell, then of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, argued that they were Christian Scientists and that they had the legal right as the child’s parents, to try to treat his medical condition through prayer. In a landmark decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, reviewing that case, ruled that parents have a legal duty to provide medical care for their seriously ill children, notwithstanding claims of religious faith.(Note: In the LaBrie case, the defendant was not charged with straight murder here, because what is known as the “proximate cause” of the boy’s death was ultimately the cancer that he suffered from.)
I also wasn’t especially surprised at the jury’s finding of Reckless Endangerment of a Child. However, I was fairly surprised at the guilty verdicts on two other counts: Massachusetts Assault and battery on a disabled person with injury; 3) assault and battery on a child with substantial injury. I think that these charges were a stretch on the part of the District Attorney, as failure to administer medication to a 7 year-old child is not likely to create apprehension in the child of an imminent, unwanted touching, and neither is it an actual “battery”. FoxTV-25 asked me earlier this week to review the case as a legal expert, and my broadcast appearance can be viewed by clicking on this FoxTV-25 link.
Notwithstanding, the jury’s guilty verdicts on these and all four counts reflected a considerable degree of anger toward this defendant. Some jurors have commented on how they simultaneously felt anger and sympathy for this mother, in trying to care for an autistic 7 year-old who was stricken with cancer, but it’s clear that it was their antipathy toward LaBrie that formed their verdicts. Indeed, The Boston Globe editorialized on the duality of these emotions in this case, but made clear its support for prison time. Click on the Globe link in the preceding paragraph to read that editorial. Its title tells the story: “Sympathy and a Stiff Sentence.” (Note: The Globe had written that editorial the day before Superior Court judge Richard Welch’s sentence was delivered, Friday, April 15 2011, but the editorial was published in that morning’s edition.)
Yesterday, LaBrie, 38, was sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison, and was also ordered to serve five years on probation and to complete an anger management program, according to an Essex County District Attorney spokesman. Adding the maximum sentences for each count, LaBrie faced a potential maximum total of 37 ½ years in prison; a maximum of 20 years for the attempted murder charge, alone. Against this backdrop, eight to 10 years is a relatively light sentence. She will be eligible for parole after serving eight years. As obvious as the jurors’ intolerance of LaBrie’s conduct was, I think it’s equally clear that the judge in this case felt some countervailing sympathy for her.
All in all, I think the sentence is not especially unreasonable, especially when one considers the worst sentence of all that LaBrie will have to live with, for the rest of her life: That she was convicted of the attempted murder of her own son.