Full story of Esther's death may never be known

Relates to:
Date: 2004-06-06

By JUDY EMERSON

Rockford Register Star

Sandra Scudder had entered a not-guilty plea to the charge that she murdered her daughter Esther, who was 22 months old when she died June 14, 2002.

Defense attorney Debra Schafer said she was preparing to defend her client at trial when Scudder was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2003. The case was closed when Scudder died less than four months later.

An autopsy had determined that the child died of brain hemorrhaging due to blunt force trauma to the head. Schafer said Scudder told her Esther received the fatal injury in a fall at church. Scudder gave her attorney, her mother and friends this account:

She said that on Wednesday, June 12, 2002, she had watched the children in her church nursery before the evening prayer meeting. She was a member of North Love Baptist Church, where she attended several services each week.

She told people that Esther and another child were playing in the playhouse when Esther screamed. Scudder retrieved the crying child from the playhouse and comforted her.

Although Esther seemed to be all right during the service, she was quiet and sleepy, Scudder told her mother and friends. Later that night, at home with 5-year-old Bethany and Esther, Scudder bathed both girls and washed their hair. She didn't feel any bumps on Esther's head.

She laid Esther on the bathroom floor with a lidded cup of milk to drink and turned around to straighten up the room.

The next time she looked at the baby, Esther had stopped breathing and milk was running from the corners of her mouth.

Panicked, Scudder "pounded" on the baby's chest in an attempt to resuscitate her, said Dorothy Turney, Scudder's mother. When that failed, she held Esther upside down by the leg and hit her on the back until the child started breathing.

Thinking the crisis was over, Scudder gave the baby a little test to see if she was alert.

"She said to her, `Esther, where's your hair? Where's your nose?' She pointed to them and Sandy thought she was OK," Turney said.

The next day, Thursday, June 13, Esther seemed to be breathing all right, but she was sleeping deeply and would not wake up.

Scudder tried to call the children's pediatrician, but he was out of town. Then, she tried to call her own doctor, who was unavailable.

Later, Esther stopped breathing again, according to Scudder's account.

At that point, Bethany called her grandmother, who lived nearby, and Scudder called 911.

Bad judgment

Scudder's mother and friends agree that Scudder's failure to call for help was poor judgment, but they say it was consistent with her need to be independent and handle things on her own.

"She didn't want to be one of those people who ran to the doctor all the time," longtime friend and co-worker Nancy Watson said. "Why didn't she call 911? She knew she had hit this kid. If she took her to the ER, they would have thought she'd abused the child. She wanted to go see her own doctor and he was out of town.

"I don't care what it looks like - she didn't have it in her to hurt this child."

Assistant Deputy State's Attorney Margaret "Margie" O'Connor would have prosecuted Scudder had the case gone to trial. She said she had not heard Scudder's account of what happened to Esther.

"That's the first time I've heard that story," O'Connor said. "But the facts about the injuries she sustained are not supported by that story."

O'Connor was reluctant to discuss specifics of the prosecution's case because Scudder is dead and unable to defend herself. The case is closed.

"As a prosecutor, I still have the memory of this child and the injuries and what she suffered," O'Connor said.

She said Scudder's well-known religious convictions were immaterial to the criminal charges.

"I don't review cases differently if someone is a Christian or a non-Christian," O'Connor said. "I understand that her family is concerned about Sandy's memory. I hope they're just as concerned about Esther's memory.

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