Mother's manslaughter trial gets under way

Relates to:
Date: 2004-06-03

Portland Press Herald (ME)

The prosecution disputes Sarah Allen's claims that bathtub falls led to her 22-month-old son's death.
Author: GREGORY D. KESICH Staff Writer

Dateline: AUBURN

Sarah Allen's 22-month-old son was shaken with the force of a severe car accident or a fall from a second-story window the night he died, a prosecutor in Allen's manslaughter trial said Wednesday. According to Allen, those injuries resulted from a series of falls in the bathtub and in the boy's bedroom. Her lawyer said she is only guilty of being a first-time mother who made some child-care mistakes.

But Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said those explanations defy common sense.

"Falling in a tub cannot have caused that injury, falling on a carpeted floor could not have caused that injury," she said. "She (Allen) couldn't tolerate his typical 2-year-old behavior. Her response . . . was to shake him with so much force it caused his death."

Allen's trial began Wednesday with opening statements from the defense and prosecution. Both sides will rely on complicated medical evidence, and the trial is expected to last as long as three weeks. If convicted, Allen faces up to 40 years in prison.

With no eyewitnesses, the state's case is entirely circumstantial, Marchese said. But she said Nathaniel's injuries will show what happened that night last year.

The case involves the type of injuries often associated with "shaken baby syndrome," the leading cause of child-abuse death in the United States. Victims typically have not reached their first birthday, but older children have also died from the traumatic impact of brain and skull that comes from rapid whiplash-type movements.

The diagnosis has been challenged by some medical authorities who claim that accidental injuries are often mistaken for abuse.

In his opening statement to the jury, Allen's lawyer said the medical evidence will show that Nathaniel's mother was falsely accused. Verne Paradie said 30-pound Nathaniel was too big for Allen to shake violently enough to kill him without causing other bruises to his body, and authorities were too quick to blame a hysterical and confused mother.

"If Sarah Allen is guilty of anything, it's of being a first-time parent," Paradie said. "Get to know Mrs. Allen and see if she is the kind of person who would do this."

Allen lives in Lisbon Falls with her husband, Jeremy, a Navy journalist assigned to the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The couple adopted Nathaniel as a 1-year-old from Guatemala. Sarah Allen stayed home with the baby.

She was an attentive mother, who read parenting texts and took her son to the doctor regularly, according to her lawyer. "She kept a baby book that puts most of us to shame," Paradie said. Nathaniel appeared to be a healthy baby.

But according to Marchese there were problems in the home.

The night before he died, Marchese said, Nathaniel had a tantrum and looked at his parents defiantly. Jeremy Allen allegedly spanked him with a wooden spoon, leaving bruises on his bottom that were still visible at an autopsy exam three days later. When Nathaniel still wouldn't stop, Sarah Allen threw water in his face, Marchese said.

Jeremy Allen is facing a felony assault charge. His trial was scheduled to begin last month but was delayed when the lawyers were unable to select an impartial jury. Allen was in court for his wife's trial, taking notes and passing them to Paradie.

At about 10 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2003, Sarah Allen called an emergency dispatcher, her voice hysterical. Her son was unconscious and gasping for breath. She said he may have a broken neck.

Lisbon Police Officer Richard St. Amant said he went to the house and found Allen holding a limp and unresponsive child in her arms.

"She said they had been fighting all day," St. Amant testified. "She kept saying, `It's all my fault.' "

Nathaniel was bleeding in his eyes, brain, nose and mouth, Marchese said. But there were no external injuries to his body, other than bruises on his buttock and left wrist.

In a series of interviews with doctors and police, Allen gave varying explanations for what happened.

She said Nathaniel was acting up at dinner and put applesauce in his hair. She gave him a bath, but he struggled with her and fell in the tub.

Later he fell several times, including once in his bedroom when his mother's hip brushed him, she said.

Doctors said those explanations did not make sense, Marchese said. Nathaniel's brain was so swollen he required surgery. There were hemorrhages in his eyeballs, she said, which usually result from a traumatic event like a car accident or falling out a window several stories high.

A boy less than three feet tall could not produce that level of force by falling, she said.

But Paradie said there are other explanations. Household falls can be deadly in some cases.

"It happens," he said. "It's unlikely, but not impossible. Impossible and unlikely are two different things."

The prosecution will present witnesses today at 9 a.m. in the Androscoggin County Court House in Auburn.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at:

gkesich@pressherald.com

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