Accused mother free after mistrial

Relates to:
Date: 2004-06-18

Portland Press Herald (ME)

Sarah Allen is likely to face a new trial on charges she shook her baby to death, the prosecutor says.
Author: GREGORY D. KESICH Staff Writer

A mother accused of shaking her son to death will probably face a new trial after jurors failed to reach a verdict despite 18 hours of deliberations. Justice Ellen Gorman declared a mistrial Thursday and released Sarah Allen, 30, on bail. Allen and her family left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said the final decision to prosecute the case again was not hers, but she would push for a new trial. "I think the evidence against Sarah Allen is strong," Marchese said. "The medical evidence is over- whelming."

Allen's lawyer, Verne Paradie, said, "It's obvious we'll be doing this again."

The trial, which began June 1, was complicated, with both sides relying on expert testimony from more than a dozen doctors. It also was emotional - at times the defendant, witnesses and some jurors broke down in tears.

In the end, the jury of six men and six women could not agree that Allen was guilty of shaking her son so violently that she fatally injured his brain. Jurors left the court without talking to reporters. One said, in passing, "We just wish the outcome had been different."

Allen called the Lisbon public safety department on Feb. 14, 2003, saying her 22-month-old adopted son Nathaniel was unconscious. She told the dispatcher, "I think he broke his neck."

Nathaniel died hours later after emergency brain surgery. Doctors found bleeding inside his skull, at the base of his neck and in his eyes, all indicators of the condition known as shaken baby syndrome. Allen told a detective that her son had fallen repeatedly that evening, twice in the bathtub and several times in his bedroom, including one time she brushed past him.

All the doctors who treated him agreed that those falls could not have injured his brain, Marchese said. They also found bruises on Nathaniel's buttock and thigh. Allen told detectives that the night before, her husband, Jeremy Allen, had spanked Nathaniel with a wooden spoon.

Sarah Allen was charged with manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison. Jeremy Allen was charged with assault.

Both prosecutions ran into trouble. Jeremy Allen's trial in May was postponed after lawyers could not find enough jurors with open minds about corporal punishment for toddlers. Marchese said in Sarah Allen's case, prosecutors had to combat the sympathy some people feel to a young mother.

"I've always realized that this was a problem," she said. "It is difficult for some people to come to grips with the idea that someone could do these things to their own child."

During Allen's trial, jurors heard from all the doctors who treated Nathaniel, including Dr. Laurence Ricci, a nationally recognized child abuse expert and director of the Spurwink School. He was called by investigators to examine Nathaniel and question Allen at the hospital.

He said the bleeding inside Nathaniel's skull could have been caused by severe shaking, but could not have been the result of household falls.

But Allen's lawyer also presented expert witnesses. Dr. Suzanne de la Monte, a neuropathologist on the faculty of Brown University, said her study of Nathaniel's brain did not discover the tiny tears that would be expected in a shaking death. She said her examination, coupled with reports that Nathaniel had development delays in walking and talking, suggested that he had an undiagnosed brain disorder that caused him to fall and eventually caused his death. De la Monte said she could not prove that he had the disorder because she did not have the right tissue samples to conduct tests.

Paradie said doctors jumped to the conclusion that the boy had been abused when they saw the bruises on Nathaniel's backside. "She is presumed to be guilty," Paradie told the jury.

The decision whether to have a second trial will be made by Attorney General Steven Rowe, after consulting with Marchese and the other prosecutors in the criminal division, said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes.

Although Stokes said it has been the division's practice in the past to retry cases, this one would be evaluated based on the strength of the evidence and the likelihood of getting a conviction. Stokes said they would also consider the cost of a second trial.

Paradie said his client could be faced with paying thousands of dollars to defend herself at a second trial.

"A victory would have been an acquittal," he said. "This is certainly not a victory."

He would not rule out plea negotiations with the state.

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