Pair admit causing adopted son's 2000 death
Pair admit causing adopted son's 2000 death
Hunterdon couple plead guilty to reckless manslaughter to avoid a retrial
Friday, April 13, 2007
BY RALPH R. ORTEGA, CLAIRE HEININGER AND JOE TYRRELL
A Hunterdon County couple admitted for the first time yesterday that they caused the hypothermia death of their 7-year-old adopted Russian son more than six years ago.
Robert and Brenda Matthey stood before Superior Court Judge Roger Mahon in Flemington and pleaded guilty to one count each of second-degree reckless manslaughter in the death of Viktor Alexander Matthey.
The Mattheys are both serving 10-year prison terms after being convicted in May 2004 of child abuse for mistreating Viktor before his death. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the more serious charges of aggravated and reckless manslaughter, and Hunterdon prosecutors had sought a retrial on those counts.
Under a plea deal reached with prosecutors, the Mattheys' original 10-year sentences would be reduced to seven years and the couple would drop their several outstanding appeals. The deal is pending approval by the judge. As a result, they could be out of jail as early as December.
"There's certainly no justice for Viktor," said Phyllis Matthey-Johnson, Robert Matthey's mother who adopted Viktor's 11-year-old twin brothers and now lives with them in Pennsylvania.
Viktor died in October 2000, 10 months after he and the twins were adopted by the Mattheys from an orphanage in Russia. Authorities discovered the boy died after he was locked in a dark and cold basement pump room overnight as a form of punishment in the couple's home.
Viktor's body temperature had dropped to 83.2 degrees by the time he arrived at Hunterdon Medical Center, where he died from cardiac arrest after two days on life support. The Mattheys blamed the boy's hypothermia on a nutritional disorder he had from malnutrition just after his birth in Russia.
Until yesterday, the couple had accepted no responsibility for the death.
In court yesterday, the Mattheys were silent and at times hid their faces from a courtroom photographer.
The tall, bearded Robert Matthey, 43, shrugged his shoulders, answering "yes," when Mahon asked if he understood he was pleading guilty.
He said he failed "to seek medical assistance for Viktor's deteriorating condition," including "moaning in his sleep, appearing zonked out, not standing on his own, and shivering prior to him going into cardiac arrest." The father admitted that he was "criminally reckless."
"I consciously disregarded the substantial risk that Viktor's medical condition could possibly cause death," he said.
Brenda Matthey, 42, read the same statement in a whisper, but dropped the word "deteriorating."
The Mattheys had previously said they struggled with the boys' misbehavior and claimed Viktor and his brothers had difficulties adjusting to their new lives in America.
The boys, as well as the couple's four biological sons, had been living with the Mattheys. Robert Matthey was working as a mechanic, while Brenda Matthey stayed at home to raise the children.
After Viktor's death, the Mattheys were questioned by state investigators about bruises and abrasions discovered on his body. They were arrested a week later and after a jury trial, were convicted in July 2004 on three counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
However, appeals and a hung jury on manslaughter charges kept their case in the courts. After the Mattheys unsuccessfully resisted efforts to retry the case, both sides began discussing a plea deal in August.
Negotiations dragged until this week, when the couple appeared before Mahon, ready to accept a deal.
"This was an extensive plea offer," Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Dawn Solari said.
The agreement eliminated the first-degree aggravated manslaughter charges the couple would have faced had the case gone to trial.
In return, the Mattheys pleaded guilty to second-degree charges of reckless manslaughter, and agreed to drop appeals on their child abuse convictions. Those sentences also would be reduced to seven years instead of the original 10.
Prosecutors said they will recommend the couple be sentenced to four years in state prison on yesterday's plea. Because of New Jersey's No Early Release Act, the Mattheys will be eligible for parole after 85 percent of the sentence is served.
Counting time they have already spent in prison since their May 2004 child abuse convictions, the couple may become eligible for release by the end of this year.
James Gerrow Jr., vice chair of the State Bar Association's criminal practice section, said the deal seems like a good one for the Mattheys and a decent one for prosecutors.
"From a defense perspective, limiting a client's exposure to little more than time already served, you've done a good job," said Gerrow, executive assistant prosecutor in Burlington County.
In a telephone interview from her home in Pennsylvania, Matthey-Johnson said she was relieved the twins and the Mattheys' four biological sons would be spared the strain of a retrial. Three of the biological children are living with relatives, and the fourth is staying with the family's pastor.
James Yevgeniy Johnson, one of the twins, speaking on behalf of himself and his brother, Jeziah Vladimir Johnson, said he did not want Viktor's memory to be lost.
"I just want people to remember my brother, because he was a sweet kid and great brother and I really miss him," James, 11, said after his grandmother handed him the phone. "I can't get it out of my head."