Mattheys convicted of abusing Viktor

Date: 2004-05-20

Mattheys convicted of abusing Viktor

Defense vows to appeal verdicts in Hunterdon County case

Thursday, May 20, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Robert and Brenda Matthey were convicted yesterday of abusing their 7-year-old adopted Russian son and locking him in a filthy, unlit basement "pump room," but a Hunterdon County jury deadlocked on the more serious charge of whether the couple caused the boy's hypothermia death in October 2000.

The Mattheys, clearly stunned by the verdict, exchanged an emotional embrace at the defense table before sheriff's officers shackled them and took them to the Hunterdon County Jail. The couple was released on bail early this morning.

Defense attorneys vowed to appeal the guilty verdicts on three child endangerment charges, each of which carries a maximum 10 years in state prison. Prosecutors must now weigh whether to seek a new trial on the two manslaughter counts that left the jury at an impasse.

"There's a decision to be made and a sense of unfinished business," Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Harvey Lester said. "There are no winners here today. Let's remember that a little boy died."

Joseph Procopio, foreman of the eight-woman, four-man jury, said a few jurors could not be convinced that there was enough evidence that the Mattheys locked Viktor in the unheated pump room the night of Oct. 28, 2000, causing his hypothermia death.

He said the deliberations stalled at 9-3 in favor of conviction on the reckless manslaughter charge, and 8-4 to convict on the more serious aggravated manslaughter count, which carried a potential 30-year prison term.

"I think justice has been served," said Procopio, who voted guilty on both counts. "We did the best we could. My heart was pounding when I read out the verdict."

Tension filled the Flemington courtroom as Procopio delivered the jury's partial verdict. The gallery was packed with members of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and a few scattered supporters of the Mattheys.

As the verdict was read, Robert Matthey shook his head and bit his lower lip. Brenda Matthey held her husband's hand and appeared stoic.

The Mattheys' four biological sons, who testified and attended parts of the 10-week trial as spectators, were in Florida yesterday. Their oldest son attends college there and the other three were vacationing at Walt Disney World with the pastor of the Mattheys' church, the Flemington Assembly of God.

"The children know their parents are innocent, but they're not prepared for this," defense attorney Arthur Russo said after the Mattheys were led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. "Eventually, the Mattheys will be vindicated."

Shortly after midnight, the Mattheys were released on $60,000 bail each. They left the Hunterdon County Courthouse looking visibly tired, angry and disheveled. Both had changed from orange prison garb to the suits they were wearing earlier in the day.

The Mattheys would not comment and were driven off by several church members who were waiting outside for hours for the couple to be released.

Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Dawn Solari said she intends to file an emergency appeal this morning to have bail revoked and the Mattheys remanded to the county jail until their sentencing on July 22.

"There is a risk of flight now that they are facing prison terms," Solari said, noting that the Union Township couple has access to financial resources through their church. "There's a lot places they could go."

Defense attorney James Broscious said the defense already had started to prepare an appeal of the guilty verdicts on several fronts, including a long-standing dispute the Mattheys had with the state Office of the Public Defender over funds for expert witnesses.

"We maintain their innocence," Broscious said. "They're disappointed. They're strong people. They would not have survived this long if they weren't."

Solari said she would push for the Mattheys to be sentenced to consecutive 10-year prison terms on each of the three child endangerment counts. That decision will be left to Superior Court Judge Victor Ashrafi at the time of the sentencing.

The jury deliberated for 37 hours over seven days before finding the Mattheys guilty of beating Viktor, locking him in the pump room and failing to provide him with proper medical care in the months before his death.

Doctors found extensive bruises and cuts on the boy's body when he arrived at the emergency room of the Hunterdon Medical Center on Oct. 29, 2000, with a body temperature of 83.2 degrees.

Viktor's heart had been stopped for 80 minutes before he was revived. He died after two days on life support, and the Mattheys were charged a week later.

The Mattheys were accused of striking Viktor with aluminum baseball bats, two kinds of whips, belts and open hands. Robert Matthey admitted during testimony that he sometimes forced Viktor to run in place with a bat over his head when he misbehaved.

"The scary thing was that they justified their treatment of Viktor and he was tortured at their hands," said Deborah Benedetti, one of the jurors. Benedetti said she was frustrated that the jury was unable to convict the Mattheys on the manslaughter charges.

"All I can say is that I hope they are retried," Benedetti said.

For the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, considering a retrial is an all too familiar dilemma. Just last month, the manslaughter trial of former Nets star Jayson Williams ended in a mistrial.

The jury in that case found Williams guilty of attempting to cover up the fatal shooting of a limousine driver, but could not reach a verdict on whether Williams negligently caused his death by mishandling a loaded shotgun. Williams is expected to be in court tomorrow to discuss the potential for a new trial.

Solari said she would be discussing a retrial of the Matthey case with members of the prosecutor's office before deciding how to proceed.

During the trial, both Robert and Brenda Matthey testified that they placed Viktor in the pump room on several occasions to calm him down, but never overnight.

The last time they said Viktor was in the pump room was about a month before his death. A stain found on the inside of the pump room door was linked to Viktor's blood through a DNA test.

The Mattheys have contended, however, that Viktor's hypothermia's death was caused by a rare nutritional disorder he contracted before he was adopted from Russia in December 1999.

The Mattheys were found not guilty of a fourth child endangerment charge that alleged they fed Viktor uncooked beans without adequate water the night before his collapse.

The jurors also didn't find the Mattheys guilty of telling their children not to cooperate with detectives during the weeklong investigation leading up to their arrest on Nov. 8, 2000.

"On behalf of Viktor Matthey, we're pleased the jury decided that his parents were guilty of endangering his welfare," Solari said. "It's been a long wait. It was a very emotionally draining case."

Staff writers Matthew Reilly and Dina Guirguis contributed to this report.


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