Lucas Ciambrone's story
One or more crippling blows to the head of 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone were inflicted four to 12 hours before the boy was brought, comatose, to a Bradenton hospital by his parents, medical experts said.
But the words of a little girl -- Lucas' 11-year-old sister -- provided perhaps the most chilling description of the hellish existence that prosecutors say the boy suffered for months before his death in 1995.
During the second day of Joseph Ciambrone's trial on a first-degree murder charge in the death of his adopted son, Brenda Garcia said that she saw Heather Ciambrone throw Lucas to the floor, kick and punch the boy, and hold his head under water. Sometimes, Joseph Ciambrone was in the Rubonia house when the acts occurred, she said.
Brenda who lives in Ohio, gave clear answers of "yes" and "no" under gentle questioning by Assistant State Attorney Jeff Quisenberry.
"Did you ever see Joe Ciambrone stop Heather?" Quisenberry asked.
"No," the girl replied.
Using himself as a model, Quisenberry stood near the witness stand and pointed to areas of his own body, asking Brenda about places on Lucas' body, such as the back and ribs, where she said blows were struck.
"Did Lucas scream?" Quisenberry asked.
"Yes," the girl replied.
"More than 10 times?"
Dec. 11, 1997 -- Like her adopted stepsister, Lauren, who testified the day before, Brenda said that Lucas was kept naked in a bathroom with bare concrete floors, devoid of towels or toilet paper, where he was fed out of a bucket that jurors examined and handled.
But Lauren's halting, sometimes tearful testimony came under heavy fire from the defense, and the jury could question her credibility because of inconsistencies -- and her refusal to back up previous statements she made in depositions and to investigators when they cast a negative light on Lucas.
Brenda's credibility was far less vulnerable to attack. After Williams suggested that Brenda had been coached by the prosecutors, the girl looked toward Quisenberry and said
"He didn't tell me what to say."
Brenda said her brother would bite himself and bang his head into walls. She said that during home schooling, when Lucas made a mistake, Heather Ciambrone "would slap him, throw him on the ground, tell him it's not right."
The girl said she saw Heather Ciambrone perform CPR on the dying child the night he was brought to the hospital, and that Heather Ciambrone told her husband "he's faking dead."
"I'm sorry, Joe," Brenda said she remembered hearing Heather say.
Brenda said Lucas took "hyper pills" and that if he didn't take his medicine "he would be doing things that weren't very pleasant."
The girl said that she and Lucas often fought, and that on Heather's orders she would sometimes kick the boy in the penis as hard as she could.
She said she also tried to pick Lucas up by the ears, the same way she said she had seen Heather pick him up, but that she couldn't because he was too big.
Lucas' ears were nearly pulled from his head, according to medical testimony given by Dr. Joan Wood, chief medical examiner of Pinellas County, who performed a detailed autopsy on Lucas.
Wood said that the boy's body temperature when he was admitted to Manatee Memorial Hospital -- 84 degrees -- helped her calculate that the death blow came at least four hours before Heather and Joe Ciambrone drove him to the hospital. The body temperature was falling as the result of a shutdown of vital functions from the time he received at least one death-dealing blow to the head, she said. Wood detailed what she saw as the cause of death.
Blunt trauma brain injury "so severe that his brain and skull have moved in two different directions," was the cause of death, Wood said. Lucas suffered three blows to the head and any one -- or all -- might have been the direct cause of death, she said.
The injury caused instant loss of consciousness, Wood said. Lucas was not struck with an object, but might rather have been hurled into something hard and unyielding -- such as a toilet or bathtub -- with tremendous force, she said.
The degree of injury to the head and nine different breaks or fractures to the ribs were indicative of child abuse, and could not have been caused by an accident, or been self-inflicted, Wood said.
"When we do see them in children they are the result of things like motor vehicle accidents and falling from significant heights, one two, three, four stories," Wood said.
Lucas weighed 32 pounds at the time of his death, about half the weight of an average 7-year-old.
Wood said there was no doubt in her mind that the boy was malnourished, and that his body had been burning its own muscle tissue as a source of energy.
The extent of Lucas' malnutrition was later confirmed by prosecution witness Dr. Eli Newberger of Massachussetts, who recently testified at the Cambridge trial of British au pair Louise Woodward.
Noting that he had spent time doing nutrition-related field work in impoverished, famine-stricken areas of the African continent, Newberger said Lucas's distended belly and other evidence were on par with the starvation cases he had seen there.
After reciting a litany of degrees and honors that qualify him to testify in court on child abuse and other pediatric matters -- and his $450 per hour expert witness fee -- Newberger said he believed Lucas had been sexually abused.
He described the boy's genital mutilation, and backed up Wood's theories on the extent of the head injuries.
Newberger said that both Heather and Joseph Ciambrone, as mother and father, must share the responsibiltiy of raising their children and that they therefore shared the blame, prompting objections from the defense and a hurried bench conference.
"Virtually every square inch of this child's body had some sign of abuse and neglect," Newberger said. "On the head and around the neck, the face is injured in ways that clearly would have been tremendously painful to the child because the skin was gouged all the way through hundreds of times, around the ears, eyes, in back of and in front of the neck."
Newberger also said he saw no evidence based on the materials he reviewed that Joseph Ciambrone had inflicted any of the injuries.
There was one final "witness" for the prosecution after Newberger -- the face of a smiling and laughing Lucas, on a videotape made when he was in day care. It was the last thing jurors saw before Chief Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou announced that he had ended his case, and that the prosecution was resting.
After the jury left for the day, Hartmann asked State Circuit Judge Gilbert Smith to dismiss the charges against her client, arguing that the prosecution had not delivered what it promised during opening statements.
A tragic death occurred, but no evidence or testimony had issued that showed Joseph Ciambrone was the culprit, Hartmann said. Joseph Ciambrone had fed Lucas -- not starved him -- the testimony showed. He had rushed the dying Lucas to the hospital, and was not home when the death blow was struck, she said.
Economou repeated his contention that an ongoing course of child abuse under the theory lawyers call "felony murder" had occurred, and said his case was solid.
Smith denied the defense request.
Although the defense attorneys need prove nothing under the law, their role is to cast doubt on the case the prosecutors have presented.
Joseph Ciambrone is not required to take the stand in his own defense. Lawyers would not say whether they plan to have him do so.
A parade of mental health professionals told jurors stories about a little boy with serious behavioral problems and attempts by his foster parents to deal with him, as Joseph Ciambrone's attorneys presented his side of the story in court.
The 42-year-old murder defendant will take the witness stand if his lawyers give a final go-ahead.
Heather Ciambrone was judged unfit to stand trial. The pair had been expected to be tried together.
Two witnesses -- the Ciambrones' former neighbor who acted as their landlord's agent, and a therapist who had worked with the Ciambrones before Lucas' death, James Baldwin -- got the toughest treatment from Chief Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou.
Economou's velvet demeanor changed drastically after Shawn Helmer, the neighbor, said he had seen Lucas Ciambrone hurl himself into a tree and once, while at the Ciambrone family dining table, violently pull his own ears outward from his head.
"I watched him slam his head on both the metal frame door and the concrete floor," Helmer said. "I watched Joe get up from the couch ... and pick him up."
Economou brought up a felony conviction in Helmer's past, but did not go into specifics. He then questioned Helmer's contention that scratches on interior doors of the Rubonia house were caused by a dog from a previous tenant. In rapid succession, Economou fired questions at Helmer, asking whether he ever had seen injuries on Lucas or noticed anything else wrong in the household.
"Did Lucas look like this when you saw him?" Economou asked, as he strode across the courtroom, retrieved a life-sized photo of the dead boy's naked, wound-covered body and put it in front of Helmer.
Helmer responded: "No, sir."
Dr. Howard Goldman, a psychiatrist who treated Lucas, told jurors what he knew of the boy's early life -- before the Ciambrones took him in as foster parents and later adopted him.
Goldman said the boy's birth mother was killed by her husband, and that Lucas sometimes threw tantrums and had aggressive outbursts. The child suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Goldman, who prescribed drugs to help curb the boy's aggressive behavior. The medications included Elavil and Thorazine.
Goldman said he tried to teach nurturing behavior to Joseph Ciambrone and expressed a belief that Lucas -- although problematic -- needed love and encouragement to overcome his behavioral problems -- and to thrive. The boy needed peace to remain in the Ciambrone household, Goldman said.
Yet there was a "power struggle" between Ciambrone and Lucas, Goldman said. It included toilet-training problems and instances of Lucas' wandering through the house at night.
Finally, Goldman shared his impressions from his last visit with the boy, June 3, 1993.
"This little boy was looking great. He was happy, cleanly dressed, no signs of marks or bruises," Goldman said. "He was a happy, lovable little boy ... he was proud of himself for improving his `toileting."'
The Ciambrones were to bring Lucas back to Goldman in three months, but never did.
Another professional whom the couple consulted, James Baldwin, depicted Lucas' emotional state quite differently.
Baldwin said the boy had threatened to harm his younger brother, so the therapist advised Joseph Ciambrone to keep Lucas locked in a bedroom at night.
Baldwin said the stepfather who killed Lucas' birth mother had become the boy's role model.
"He said many times he would take a knife to (Heather) like his stepdad did his mom ... he wanted to have big muscles like his stepdad," Baldwin said. The therapist detailed self-destructive behavior by the boy.
He also said Lucas threatened to stab Heather Ciambrone and sexually acted out with other children.
"He need(ed) a lot more than hugs and a safe home to live in," Baldwin said of the boy. "He needed specialized help.
Baldwin said he advised the Ciambrones to return Lucas to state officials because the couple was not capable of managing his behavior. The assessment drew fire from Economou.
Noting that Baldwin has no medical degree and is neither a psychiatrist nor a psychotherapist, the prosecutor peppered him with questions about his qualifications. Economou chided him for not having notes on the case.
Baldwin said they were lost when an agency he worked for moved.
Consistent throughout the day's testimony was that Lucas was a special child in need of special help.
No witnesses testified about what occurred in the Ciambrone home in 1995, the year Lucas died.
Dec. 12, 1997 -- By his own admission, Joseph Ciambrone failed as a father, protector and caregiver for the 7-year-old boy he and his wife, Heather, chose to adopt.
Testifying in the Manatee County courthouse, Ciambrone said he accepted moral responsibility but he disputed a prosecutor's contention that he willfully tortured or mistreated Lucas.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou, unsatisfied by Ciambrone's mea culpa, zeroed in on the defendant with demands for accountability and confronted him with a life-sized photo of a nude, dead and scarred Lucas.
Ciambrone said his wife made the decisions that resulted in the criminal charge both now face, and that he permitted those decisions to be carried out by doing nothing to stop them.
"We used to leave Lucas in the restroom," Ciambrone said, drawing gasps from spectators.
"It was wrong. It wasn't my decision, it was my wife's," he later explained. "Heather managed the home and the children and I was the breadwinner. ... I just didn't stop it. I didn't say that's not right for a little boy to sleep on the floor. I didn't say it's not right to feed him food that we don't eat. I was a pretty bad dad in that respect."
Ciambrone's protests drew no sympathy from Economou, who questioned the defendant about his own responsibility and the choices he could have made.
"So you did have choices in this, did you not sir?" Economou said. "This is your home, you were the father, you were the husband."
The 42-year-old Rubonia man said Lucas was confined to the bathroom at night after he caught the boy having sexual intercourse with a little girl who lived in the house.
Economou later charged that the intercourse story was made up, as an excuse that might justify the caging and torturous treatment of the boy.
While he noticed that Lucas -- diagnosed after his death with severe malnutrition -- was losing weight, Ciambrone said that he did nothing about the child's condition, that he did not take him to a doctor.
"I didn't incite anything, I didn't encourage anyone, I didn't instruct anyone, but I am responsible," Ciambrone said. "I am his father. I didn't do anything about it. I failed my family."
Ciambrone spoke in response to questions from his lawyer, Charles Williams, at first. He answered in an even tone, and told of the problems he and his wife had with Lucas, who had been diagnosed as hyperactive, with anti-social personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ciambrone said that he and his wife took in foster children who tested positive for HIV (the AIDS-causing virus), who had behavior problems, who were not wanted anywhere else.
But they seemed to have met their match with Lucas, who ate out of garbage cans and frequently drank out of the toilet.
Using tools learned in parenting classes, Ciambrone said he tried to modify Lucas' behavior but with little success. Lucas improperly touched a baby assigned to the Ciambrones. Increasingly, Lucas would urinate and defecate on the toys of other children. When displeased, Lucas would bang his head against doors and floors, and mutilate himself in other ways, including biting, Ciambrone said.
Ciambrone, who was working full time as a snack machine driver, said he had little direct contact with Lucas or direct knowledge of his alleged misdeeds, however, because of long hours away from home. Ciambrone said he tried to get help from doctors and received suggestions that included holds designed to calm unruly children.
Despite the difficulties with Lucas, Ciambrone said he and his wife decided to adopt the boy because "he needed a home."
But things got worse. On the advice of a therapist, the locks on a bedroom and bathroom door were changed so that they couldn't be opened from the inside, Ciambrone said. A bedroom window was screwed shut because Lucas and another child would sneak out of the house at night, he said.
"I drilled the holes and screwed it in," Ciambrone said. "I had to take a risk, the risk of them getting killed, stolen or hurt and maimed in the middle of the night on Bayshore Road, the percentages of that were a lot greater than my house catching fire. I'd be the first one through that window glass and all to get my children if my house caught fire."
Ciambrone said he believed his wife was feeding the boy during the day.
"When I came home in the evening she said she would handle it. I had fed Lucas normal food just like we eat," Ciambrone said.
The harsh restrictions placed on the boy were an act of desperation, he said.
"There wasn't anything left for us to do. We felt as if we had exhausted all our options," he said. He said that he and his wife believed that if he brought the child back to state officials, they could be charged with felony child abuse.
"I think I was just so close to the picture that I was blind," Ciambrone said. "I was insensitive. It didn't mean I did not love my family or my wife or my children, and now I have had plenty of time to reflect. There are things I see now that I didn't see then."
He then broke down in tears.
Under further questioning, he told how it all came to an end.
Ciambrone had been working in southern Sarasota County and came home to find his wife performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Lucas. He doesn't remember much after that, other than performing a Heimlich maneuver because he believed Lucas might have choked on something.
Ciambrone said he raced to the hospital with the dying boy and with Heather and the other children in the household.
Showing Ciambrone an autopsy photo that showed wounds or bruises on the boy's face, Williams asked which of the marks was not there the last time he saw his son alive.
"This, this, this ... " he said, a total of eight times.
During cross examination, Ciambrone was reminded that he told a police officer that there was no bulb in the bathroom where Lucas was kept because Lucas might hurt himself.
Economou asked if the glass globes that fit over the lightbulb might not have been a danger as well, or the mirror.
"You left that child in that bathroom to punish him, to torture him," Economou said. "That's why you took the lightbulb out of there, didn't you sir?"
A heated exchange followed in which Economou accused Joseph Ciambrone of treating his adopted daughter -- who visited on weekends -- with civility while caging the other children in his care. Ciambrone protested that he didn't call it caging.
"The law may," Economou said
He also asked Ciambrone why he did not see that Lucas was fed and demanded to know how the couple spent the $207 they were paid each month for child care.
`How much of that did it cost to keep a naked kid in a bathroom? ... Did you know he was dying?"
"Did you know he was suffering?"
"He was suffering when we got him."
"You helped to make it worse, yes or no?"
"You were going to save the world and you took a child's life instead," Economou said.
"I didn't take his life," Ciambrone said.
"Nothing further," Economou said, and laid his notes down on the lectern.
Dec. 13, 1997 -- Joseph Ciambrone was sentenced to a life prison term after a jury of 10 women and two men convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of Lucas.
A juror later said there was almost no question of how the vote would go and that lesser charges did not receive serious consideration by the panel.
The jurors filed into the courtroom at 2:16 p.m. following 90 minutes of delilberations and appeared relieved that their ordeal was over.
Ciambrone sat stone-faced at the defense table as deputy court clerk Terry Turner read the guilty verdict, prompting quiet sobs from relatives.
Ciambrone's sister and her two daughters had sat through each day of the emotional proceedings. They - like other spectators - had seen the graphic photographs of Lucas Ciambrone. The photos were used by prosecutors to punctuate a horrific tale of the abuse, torture and caging of the child, who died of injuries sustained by a devastating blow to the head.
Charles Williams, Ciambrone's attorney, waived a pre-sentence investigation, paving the way for State Circuit Judge Gilbert Smith to pass sentence as soon as the jurors left the courtroom. Smith said Ciambrone would be placed in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections for the rest of his natural life.
Williams said Joseph Ciambrone planned to appeal. Ciambrone's wife, Heather, was judged not competent to stand trial at this time. She is awaiting transfer to a state psychiatric hospital.
Joseph Ciambrone's relatives, pursued by television camera crews, said they blamed the news media for the outcome.
"This is not right," one woman told a reporter. "You're the reason."
Chief Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou, who prosecuted the case, said he was pleased with the verdict and praised the jurors, who were chosen through an unusual selection process that relied on lengthy pre-trial questionnaires.
"Those people had a lot of issues to decide," Economou said. He was asked whether the verdict was indicative of societal attitudes toward child abuse. "I don't know that it says anything about it. It says a lot about this particular case and this particular child."
During closing arguments, Economou told the jury that Ciambrone had the option of halting the abusive behavior he attributed to his wife.
"This was a case about the responsibility of parents and more important than that it is about the responsibilty of a father to his son," Economou said during his hour-long summation.
"What a father must do to provide, to protect, to nurture, to keep from harm his son."
Economou blasted what he saw as defense efforts to place the emotionally troubled 7-year-old on trial.
"This was a child," Economou said. "He saw his world through eyes of fear, through the eyes of torture. He saw his world through the eyes of pain. He saw his world where there was no love and there was no nurturing."
Economou said Lucas, who had more than 200 wounds on his body when medical examiners performed his autopsy, was dying "a slow, inexorable but certain death hour by hour, day by day. ... It was only a matter of time before this child died and that is what this case is about."
No evidence was offered that Joseph Ciambrone struck the blow that resulted in the child's death, Economou reminded jurors that he did not have to provide such evidence. That Ciambrone - by his own admission - did nothing to keep the child from being kept naked in the bathroom of the family's Rubonia home and did nothing to alleviate the boy's malnutrition was enough, Economou said.
Economou said Ciambrone could have put a stop to it all.
"He can't blame anyone for the starvation, he can't blame anyone for the caging," Economou said.
During the defense closing, Williams asked jurors to put aside their feelings of sympathy for Lucas.
What occurred in the Ciambrone home, Williams said, was a tragedy, and he asked jurors to understand that he had to subject vulnerable child witnesses - two children who lived in the Rubonia residence - to tough questioning only to determine the truth.
Williams then used a prosecution exhibit - a videotape of a smiling, happy Lucas in day care - and acknowledged that the tape tragically contrasted with the nude post-mortem photos that he was certain had shocked jurors.
"You see that image," Williams said of the happy videotape, "and you say my God how did that end up like the photograph. Quite frankly I don't know. There's a lot of things about this case about which I have no clue."
But testimony showed that the Ciambrones had their hands full with a troubled child and that a time came when they could do nothing more, Williams said.
He said that many of Lucas' injuries could have been self-inflicted, and he pointed to inconsistencies in testimony given by prosecution witnesses - particularly the children. Williams said that Dr. Eli Newberger, a world-renowned pediatrician, was more of an advocate than an impartial arbiter of medical fact, who carried with him to the witness stand a child-abuse agenda.
Although Williams mentioned the areas where he felt prosecution witnesses could be discredited, he also noted the things they said that bolstered the defense case.
One girl had testified that Heather Ciambrone had her leg broken by Lucas.
Neighbors had testified that the Ciambrones were powerless to deal with Lucas, whose emotional problems accelerated until the May 11, 1995 incident that claimed the child's life.
Williams reminded jurors that James Baldwin, a psychotherapist, said he had warned the Ciambrones that they could not handle the child and suggested that Lucas be given back to state authorities.
Tragedy had been die-cast while Lucas was a toddler in the dysfunctional home where his mother was stabbed to death by her husband - the incident that led him to be placed in foster care with the Ciambrones, Williams said.
Finally, Williams asked jurors to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter - an option that Economou said in a rebuttal argument would not be acceptable - if they found his client guilty.
Economou left the jurors - again - with the images of the day-care videotape, with its cheerful soundtrack of laughing children, Lucas among them.
"Listen to what love can do," he said of Lucas' interaction with teachers on the tape. "Watch Lucas when the teacher says `what a good child.' Watch him smile."
Four years to the day after Lucas Ciambrone died at Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton from numerous injuries, his death continues to rack up a financial and emotional toll.
Florida taxpayers have spent more than $225,000 to house and defend Joseph and Heather Ciambrone of Rubonia, Lucas' adoptive parents, who were charged with first-degree murder in the 7-year-old's death.
The case "engendered more emotions in this county" than any trial before it, Heather Ciambrone's attorney, Jim Slater, has said.
Heather Ciambrone, 30, has yet to face trial. Joseph Ciambrone, 45, is in the process of appealing his conviction and life term.
Lucas' sister has been placed in her third "permanent" home, out of state, said Tom Jones, spokesman for Florida's Department of Children and Families.
The siblings' birth mother was killed in 1993. The boy and his sister entered the home of Heather and Joseph Ciambrone as foster children. Their second permanent placement was with the Ciambrones, who adopted the pair in 1993.
Their adopted brother in the Ciambrone household is back in state foster care, Jones said.
The legal price tag, the toll in time, the degree to which lives were altered and the emotional wear of the Ciambrone case continues to grow.
Lucas was a highly emotional child with special needs. He was severely underweight, with more than 200 injuries to his body in various stages of healing, malnourished to the point that his body had begun to cannibalize itself, and dehydrated when medical personnel disconnected his life support on May 13, 1995.
The boy had been admitted two days earlier by his parents.
He was freshly dressed but in a coma, with a body temperature of 84 degrees.
Joseph Ciambrone's attorneys failed to win the courtroom argument in December 1997 that Lucas died at Heather Ciambrone's hands and that the father's crime was in not acting to stop the ongoing abuse.
Heather Ciambrone was found incompetent to face a jury trial back then.
Next month, a judge will determine whether her prosecution can move forward or whether she must return to a state mental hospital for continued care.
State doctors deemed her competent in December; the ruling in June will be on whether her opposition to the competency ruling has merit.
As the case slowly snakes its way through the judicial system, the legal bills continue to climb. The final judicial costs from Joseph Ciambrone's conviction are yet to be paid, and the full cost of Heather Ciambrone's trial, or detention in Chatahoochie, lies ahead.
Lucas' case sent shock waves. The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services underwent scrutiny because of the ways in which his foster care and adoption were handled. That review resulted in a shake-up of the local social services office in which some employees quit and others were fired.
The case also shook up the way the state handles the care and placement of foster children across Florida.
Changes to the state welfare system -- since renamed the Department of Children and Families -- continue, due in part to HRS' mishandling of Lucas' case.
Everyone involved in the Ciambrone case agrees that mistakes were made that led to Lucas' death.
"All of us dropped the ball on that one," said Dr. Charles Mahan, a University of South Florida professor who studied Lucas' case for the state. "We're still paying for those mistakes."
Lucas's death permanently altered the lives of the family members living in the house on 82nd Street Court East in Rubonia.
The other children in the home had to join new families.
Heather Ciambrone broke down mentally during her incarceration. After more than two years in the Manatee County Jail, she went from believing she was innocent to becoming self-injurious and mentally unstable, according to state court records and in letters that Heather Ciambrone wrote to family members and friends during that time.
Joseph Ciambrone has spent the last 18 months in state prison.
A self-described born-again Christian, he is working as an orderly in the Appalachee Correctional Institute's chapel, said Debbie Buchanan, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
Since Joseph Ciambrone's conviction, taxpayers have spent about $50 per day to house him in state prison, for a total of $26,012.65 for roughly 515 days.
More than $70,600 was spent to care for Heather Ciambrone during her year in the state mental hospital and to begin the initial phase of preparations for her defense.
More than $64,300 has been spent to house and medicate her, and about $6,200 has been spent on her defense, according to court records.
If on June 18 Heather Ciambrone is found fit for trial, she could face a jury by the end of this year.
At the competency hearing scheduled for June, Slater is expected to continue to argue that Heather Ciambrone is not ready to face a jury.
"She remains incompetent and should be returned to the state," Slater said.
Assistant State Attorney Deno Economou agrees with Dr. Klein that Heather Ciambrone can assist Slater and appreciate the consequences of a trial. Economou will ask Judge Dunnigan to find Heather Ciambrone competent and set a trial date.
Joseph Ciambrone lost his first appeal last month. It was based on his claim that he was not home when Lucas suffered the fatal blow. The 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the argument without issuing an opinion.
Miami attorney Ellis Rubin, a one-time candidate for attorney general and governor, has been hired to handle the second part of Joseph Ciambrone's appeal. Rubin is preparing a motion seeking a new trial, citing as grounds that Joe Ciambrone's trial counsel was ineffective. That counsel, Charles Williams, is now a circuit judge.
Jan. 22, 1999 -- During her first months in jail, Heather Ciambrone was curious about family members and almost defiant in expressing her belief that she was not at fault in the death of Lucas Ciambrone.
"They (the state) don't want to admit they gave us a severely disturbed child," Ciambrone wrote in a letter to family members dated Aug. 13, 1995.
That letter and about a dozen others were written by Heather and Joseph Ciambrone during their first eight months in the Manatee County Jail. They are at the center of a case that "engendered more emotions in this county" than any trial before it, Heather Ciambrone's attorney, Jim Slater, has said.
As Heather Ciambrone is sent to doctors for competency examinations, ordered to determine whether she can stand trial, details of her views on the case are scant. The letters reflect her state of mind shortly after arrest and give a picture of what jail life was like for a woman charged with killing her adopted son.
The letters are a glimpse of a couple who felt they had done no wrong, and who felt unjustly separated from each other and their family.
"Joe and I and the kids are gonna leave Florida as soon as all this BS is over," Heather Ciambrone, formerly of Rubonia, wrote in August 1995. "I don't ever want to live here again."
"I intend to take everyone in (Health and Rehabilitative Services) and other agencies down with me if I go too," she wrote in August 1995. "I'll be damned before I'll let them sacrifice me to cover their butts."
Most of the letters were sent from the Manatee County Jail to Colleen Carroll, Heather Ciambrone's sister. They were given to the Herald-Tribune on Dec. 8 by a woman who purchased a box of Ciambrone belongings at a storage unit sale last summer. The items were sold because the unit rental had not been paid by Carroll, who had power of attorney on the property. The woman gave the box to the Herald-Tribune on the condition that her identity not be divulged.
In the box with the letters were intimate family photos of Heather Ciambrone with Lucas and her other children; confidential state records about Lucas; and cards and letters belonging to other family members.
A receipt of the sale from the storage facility names Carroll as the renter. A letter with the receipt indicated that the belongings were Joseph and Heather Ciambrone's.
The collection of handwritten letters spans from August 1995 until February 1996 -- about 19 months before Heather Ciambrone became uncooperative with her attorney and began ignoring injuries to her hands and ankles caused by her restlessness while in shackles. Court-appointed psychiatrists later determined that she was depressed and experiencing general anxiety caused, in part, by her surroundings at the jail.
In her letters, Heather Ciambrone never mentions Lucas by name, only making occasional references to a child with emotional problems.
"I think they (the Manatee County Sheriff's Office) are trying to send me over the edge by putting me here, but what they fail to realize is I've had psych children in my home," she wrote on Aug. 13, 1995. "I'm used to it.
They have no idea what they are up against apparently."
Heather Ciambrone, 30, who in December 1997 was deemed incompetent to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge, was returned to Manatee County recently to undergo more psychological tests.
The exams should determine whether she is mentally capable of facing trial.
Doctors at the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee recently deemed her mentally ready.
When she first was declared incompetent, Joseph Ciambrone, 45, faced trial alone and was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Heather Ciambrone also faces life in prison if convicted.
In her letters, Heather Ciambrone acknowledges the lack of information she provides about the criminal case, noting that jail corrections officers can read inmates' mail.
In fact, any incriminating information gleaned from the writings could be used against Heather Ciambrone if her case goes to trial.
In an Aug. 14, 1995, letter to Carroll, Heather Ciambrone notes that she stopped indenting her paragraphs to make reading them tougher on the guards, whom she calls "greenskins" because of the color of their uniforms.
"I figure if they're gonna read my mail, they're gonna earn their money doing it," Ciambrone wrote. "This forces them to either skip a lot or sit down and read the whole thing."
Joseph Ciambrone mentions Lucas by name and the specifics of the case in a letter to Carroll on Nov. 16, 1995. He disputes the autopsy weight of Lucas, which was listed at between 27 and 32 pounds.
A funeral director said Lucas weighed close to 40 pounds at death, Joseph Ciambrone wrote, intimating that the state's case was rigged against him and his wife.
"So now we know what is really going on here," Joseph Ciambrone wrote.
Heather Ciambrone writes throughout the letters about how she wishes to see her other five children, noting that she misses her "babies."
Except for occasional visits and phone calls by family members, the letters were the primary form of communication between the Ciambrones and their family.
Heather and Joseph Ciambrone, who were kept apart at the county jail, would signal to each other during depositions taken in September 1995, Heather Ciambrone wrote her sister on Sept. 28, 1995.
"I was tickled to death to see him," Heather Ciambrone wrote. "We even snuck a couple of kisses and held hands. It was great!"
During his trial more than two years after that encounter, Joseph Ciambrone was not as affectionate.
He told a jury that his wife made the decisions that resulted in both being charged with murder, and that he permitted those decisions to be carried out by doing nothing to stop them.
Joseph Ciambrone, who was working full time as a snack machine driver, said that because he worked long hours away from home he had little direct contact with Lucas or direct knowledge of the boy's alleged misdeeds.
The letters detail Heather Ciambrone's life in jail -- how she was kept in isolation because other inmates threatened her; how she learned to barter for cigarettes and light them in an electrical outlet; how she learned to make "buck," a low-grade jail alcohol from fermented bread and fruit; what she knew about the sex lives of inmates; and how one can make a tattoo from the little that is available in a cell.
Ciambrone wrote her sister in February 1996 saying she got a heart etched into her left ankle.
"It was done with a paper clip that was sharpened on the concrete and ink from a black pen," Ciambrone wrote. "It's cute. I want another one but don't know what to get."
Though many of the letters deal with the personal lives of family members, a missive on Aug. 31, 1995, from Heather Ciambrone to Carroll reveals a split in the family. It was the only indication in the letters of her emotions over the arrest.
Noting that her mother had not sent her a photo of her father, Heather Ciambrone wrote that she had not realized the embarrassment caused by the couple's arrest.
"I wasn't aware that she felt the way she does. Apparently, she doesn't want anyone to know that she and dad are my parents," Heather Ciambrone wrote to Carroll. "It's okay with me. I guess I understand. She must be terribly embarrassed and ashamed of this whole thing . . .
"I'm sorry. I wish I could change things for you."