An emotional week leaves jury drained

Date: 2004-05-20

An emotional week leaves jury drained

A prayer, charts and days of talks are not enough to end deadlock

Thursday, May 20, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

They started with a prayer; they ended with a split verdict.

Jurors in the case against Brenda and Robert Matthey hung charts on the jury room walls, inspected a cat-o'-nine-tails and a bloodstained wooden door in evidence, and prayed together for guidance.

But after seven days of deliberations -- and despite the efforts of several to persuade their peers to convict -- they could not unanimously find the Hunterdon County couple guilty of killing their adopted 7-year-old son, Viktor.

"Nobody walked out of there happy," said juror Linda Franckowiak, a medical receptionist from Raritan Township.

The eight-woman, four-man jury capped an "emotional" and "draining" week by convicting the Mattheys of three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, acquitting them on two other charges, and splitting -- by votes of 9-3 and 8-4, respectively, jurors said later -- on the most serious charges of reckless manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter.

"It was difficult -- it's difficult to convict someone," said jury foreman Joseph Procopio of Clinton, a father of three, who said he glanced at the Mattheys briefly -- long enough to see that the couple appeared to be "in shock" -- as he read the jury's verdict about 3:05 p.m. "But we had a job to do. We had to do what was right for Viktor and the law and, ultimately, the Mattheys as well."

The Mattheys adopted Viktor from Russia in 1999. The state charged that they killed the child by confining him in a basement pump room as punishment on the night of Oct. 28, 2000. Viktor died of cardiac arrest caused by hypothermia; the Mattheys contended his temperature dropped fatally low because of a rare illness caused by poor nutrition in Russia.

The jury heard 2 1/2 months of testimony before getting the case on May 11. The first thing they did, Procopio said, was hold hands and say a prayer, a suggestion he said came from juror Michael Miller of Frenchtown.

"We asked God to give us guidance to make the right decision," said Procopio, who works for Telecordia Technologies.

Then they got down to business.

Working up from the bottom of the verdict sheet, they dispensed first with a charge of witness tampering, and one of endangering the welfare of a child by allegedly feeding Viktor uncooked beans. The Mattheys were acquitted of both.

The jury took another day to agree on three charges of endangering the welfare of a child. In separate charges, the couple were found guilty of endangering Viktor by confining him in a basement pump room; by failing to provide him medical care; and by inflicting excessive corporal punishment.

Procopio said he was especially bothered "that they didn't seek medical attention for him that morning. They knew something was wrong with Viktor and they went to church."

Most of the deliberation time was spent on the reckless manslaughter charge, Procopio said. At first, the foreman said the vote was six guilty, three not guilty and three undecided. Then the vote moved to 7-5. Finally, the jurors told Superior Court Judge Victor Ashrafi on Tuesday that they were split on the reckless manslaughter charge; further deliberation yesterday did not resolve it. They could not agree, either, on aggravated manslaughter.

Several jurors said the legal instructions to the jury and the way the state's case was constructed made it harder to convince the holdouts.

Juror Laura LaFemina of Tewksbury said prosecutors may have secured a conviction if they were able to use a pattern of indifference as grounds for manslaughter.

"A lot of people thought they were guilty, but they couldn't make the leap," she said.

Not one of the jurors believed the defense theory about the nutrition-caused disease, several said.

Several said that during the trial, they wanted to hear something to convince them the death was an accident.

"This thing started and you're seeing this lovely family on the stand and in the audience, you're just waiting for something to sway you that this was an accident," said juror Diane Elias of Clinton. "But the days went by and the case went on, never did I hear an explanation."

A mother of two, Elias called the case a "tragedy for all involved."

Juror Deborah Benedetti of Ringoes said she had a favorable impression of the Mattheys at first, but that changed.

"They didn't think they had done anything wrong, and that's scary," she said.

The jurors said they had agreed to listen to each other, to raise hands and not interrupt. That largely worked, they said, although there were disagreements; in one note to the judge, LaFemina expressed frustration with the holdouts' interpretation of the law.

The jurors got along well enough that 11 of the 12 went for dinner together at T.G.I. Friday's in Flemington after the case ended.

Elias said she believed the Mattheys were "in over their heads" and needed to seek more help caring for Viktor and their other children.

"It was very emotional at the end," she said. "Personally, I felt the circumstantial evidence, the medical evidence, was enough to convict them of manslaughter, but some people could not accept that."

Procopio said he was one of those who voted to convict on manslaughter.

"I think we did our best. It would have been nice if we came up with a unanimous decision on all counts, but we did the best we could," Procopio said.

Staff writers Joe Tyrrell and Dina Guirguis contributed to this report.


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