SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE FOR C.J. (editorial)

Relates to:
Date: 2004-01-16

COMMENTARY
Author: DONN ESMONDE

I want to hear you, C.J. I want to hear your words. I wish you could tell us about your short life, a life of bad and worse luck, and about what really happened that hot day four summers ago.

You will not be there today in court. Not in body, anyway. But you will be there in spirit, in the hearts of those who loved you. They will see your midnight-black hair and big brown eyes in their minds; they will hear your voice in their heads.

Your name was Casey Elgie. Everybody called you C.J. You were barely 5 when you died. You drank cups of laundry detergent that afternoon, encouraged -- a neighbor said -- by your mother, Jessica Elgie.

Maybe she was still mad at you for vomiting on your clothes the night before. That wouldn't have been unusual, her being mad. Family friends and relatives said she acted as if you were a burden, not a blessing.

You vomited after drinking the detergent and said your stomach hurt. Bubbles came out of your nose. Your mother gave you water. But you weren't taken to a hospital until nearly seven hours later. By then, you had no pulse.

Judge Joseph Forma is scheduled today to sentence your mother. He found her guilty, in a nonjury trial, of child endangerment, instead of the tougher felony charge. That was the charge she had pleaded guilty to, then withdrew, in an earlier trial.

It wasn't just that we didn't hear your voice, C.J. The people who tried to speak for you -- aunts, family friends, teachers, baby sitters -- were not heard, either.

Yes, they talked to the police. They testified in a pretrial hearing. But the judge ruled that what they said, about how little affection your mother showed you, had nothing to do with how she acted that day.

Other people thought the past treatment had everything to do with it. They thought what happened that day was part of a bigger picture. Family friends were so concerned, they offered (in vain) to take you into their homes that summer.

"And if it turned out to be permanent, fine," said Kathy Aurilio. "Anyone could see that (Jessica) didn't love that boy."

Your aunts, Donna Levin and Carol Elgie, and others told authorities of frequent scoldings -- for eating too fast, for falling on the stairs. You were allowed to use only one or two squares of toilet paper. Sometimes you didn't get a drink when thirsty. Your mother said you were "manipulative," which didn't sound like the sweet boy they knew.

The judge said none of it mattered. We all know that justice is blind, C.J. We didn't know that it could also be deaf.

You didn't just have bad luck, you had bad timing. You were already on the way to Williamsville from the orphanage in Vietnam, the Elgies' second adopted child, when your mother -- a teacher -- found out she was pregnant. The twins were born soon after you arrived.

It wasn't easy for your mother, a small woman who would soon be fighting cancer. She counted on having two young kids, not four.

Your mother's lawyer, Peter Todaro, has said she was "heartbroken" by your death and has been through "a horrible ordeal."

It sounds to me like the worst ordeal was yours.

Doctors said some of the detergent you drank and vomited got into your lungs. Over the course of the afternoon, you suffocated. Doctors said you would not have seemed fine, as your mother claimed, as your father said when he got home later. They said you would have been gasping for breath. Dying, as it were, a slow death.

Your mother was charged with criminally negligent homicide. That means she didn't act the way a mother should; she didn't do what even a stranger would have done to help you. She admitted as much to police.

Yet the judge found her guilty of a misdemeanor. It's what people get for, say, stealing a bike. She will see no more than a year in jail. She may not get so much as a day.

I wish we knew what really happened that day. You knew, C.J. And, of course, God knows.

Maybe that is the consolation. If there is a heaven, it's a place where little boys like you go. And if there is a judgment day for us adults, then there still is hope for justice.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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