THE MATTHEY TRIAL: Mattheys' character at heart of defense
Dateline: Flemington, Union Township
By GIOVANNA FABIANO
Lawyers for Robert and Brenda Matthey opened their defense case last week, after more than a month of damaging testimony from prosecution witnesses who attempted to paint a dark picture of the abuse and neglect 7-year-old Viktor Alexander Matthey allegedly suffered at the hands of his parents.
The Mattheys are charged with aggravated manslaughter in the Oct. 31, 2000, hypothermia death of Viktor, whom they adopted from the far reaches of Russia along with his younger twin brothers 10 months earlier.
Since the couple's trial began March 9, Hunterdon County assistant prosecutors Dawn Solari and Harvey Lester presented 36 witnesses and walked the jury through Viktor's short life in the United States. Witnesses, including nine doctors, portrayed the child as vibrant and healthy upon arrival and ultimately, as a sickly victim of famine who quickly deteriorated in the last five months of his life.
Although the state bears the burden of proof under New Jersey law, Clinton Town defense attorney Al Rylak, who has been following the Matthey trial, said defense attorneys now have the difficult task of convincing jurors that the Mattheys did not play a role in Viktor's death.
"The reality is that the burden of proof has almost shifted over to the defense," Rylak said. "Their credibility and their character are very much at issue."
Prosecutors attempted to prove Viktor was often forced by the Mattheys to sleep in the basement "pump room," a dark, unheated room in the couple's ranch-style home on County Route 579 in rural Union Township. The pump room is also where prosecutors believe Viktor spent the night before he was rushed to Hunterdon Medical Center's emergency room on Oct. 29, 2000, with a temperature of 83 degrees. He died two days later of cardiac arrest due to hypothermia at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
But the couple's defense attorneys, Art Russo and James Broscious, are trying to prove the boy's hypothermia was caused by kwashiorkor, a rare disease brought on by chronic malnutrition. The defense, which opened its case Tuesday, claims Viktor suffered from the disease from birth because his alcoholic mother drank excessively while pregnant.
That line of defense is complicated not only because kwashiorkor is rare, but witnesses will have to explain the various cuts, bruises and abrasions of various stages of healing found on Viktor's body before his death, Rylak said.
"They obviously have a very big uphill battle. ... They have to prove, `Did the child really have it and would it cause these things?' " Rylak said. "Just because you have a disease that can cause some difficulty, it does not necessarily cause the marks on this child."
Prosecutors attempted to refute the defense's disease theory with medical examiner Carlos Fonseca, who autopsied the boy's body. Fonseca said he was concerned Viktor's body temperature had been so low and immediately conducted a series of tests to rule out any diseases. The tests revealed that most of Viktor's organs, including his heart, spleen, liver and kidneys were relatively normal.
"Were you satisfied that no disease caused Viktor's hypothermia?" Lester asked Fonseca.
"Yes," the medical examiner replied, explaining that Viktor developed cardiac arrhythmia, or a heartbeat irregularity, while doctors were attempting to warm his body to keep him alive.
The state also produced a pediatrician, who showed jurors 41 graphic photographs of Viktor's bruise-laden body while he lay in the hospital.
But contrary to the prosecution's focus on the last five months of Viktor's life, the heart of the defense's case is what happened to the child in his early life in Russia.
Defense attorneys opened their case with adoption attorney Carol Allenza, who said the Mattheys were eager to adopt a child from a poor country, and were willing to accept children with health and emotional problems.
The Mattheys traveled to Russia in December 1999, four months after deciding to adopt 3-year-old twins from a region in Siberia near the border with China. Shortly after arriving in Moscow, the couple called Allenza to say the boys had a brother and arranged for a Russian judge to approve Viktor's adoption with some added paperwork, Allenza said.
The defense's case, which is expected to last until the end of the month, may include testimony from at least four Russian witnesses, some of whome are expected to testify that the children in Viktor's family were starving and that their parents used money from a monthly stipend to buy vodka instead of food, defense attorneys said during pretrial hearings.
Russian medical records that allege Viktor had a stint at a hospital for respiratory problems and an extensive stay at a medical facility for chronically ill children, may also be introduced.
Rylak said that although the state's case was thorough and detailed, it wasn't necessarily a "slam dunk."
"It was methodical and detailed, but I would not assume it was a slam dunk for the prosecutor," he said.
"It's obviously more difficult for a jury in a circumstantial case than an eyewitness case, but this is a case involving a child and jurors are probably going to draw from their personal experiences. ... Those that have children will draw from their personal experiences," Rylak said.
Prosecutors had the difficult task of presenting a case with largely circumstantial evidence. The state asked jurors to arrive at the conclusion that the Mattheys caused Viktor's death without offering concrete evidence from many eyewitnesses to the abuse he suffered.
The most damaging evidence came from taped statements made by the Mattheys' four biological sons a week after Viktor's death. Two of the Mattheys' sons,Richard and Raymond Matthey, said in taped statements that their mother would force Viktor to eat raw beans as a form of discipline. The children also testified that Viktor was often beaten with whips and an open hand when he behaved badly. But when they took the stand, their testimony conflicted with taped statements made nearly four years earlier.
If Rylak were one of the Mattheys' defense attorneys, he said he would rely heavily on character witnesses to convince jurors of the couple's credibility and parenting skills.
Defense attorneys have also said both Brenda and Robert Matthey will testify in their own defense.
The Russian witnesses could testify as early as next week, attorneys for the Mattheys said.
The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Monday in Superior Court, Flemington.
Robert and Brenda Matthey are each charged with:
* One count of aggravated manslaughter
* One count of manslaughter
* Four counts of endangering the welfare of a child
* One count of tampering with witnesses
If convicted, each faces up to 30 years in prison.
The trial so far
FEB. 23: Jury selection begins in Flemington in the trial of Robert and Brenda Matthey, charged in the Oct. 31, 2000, death of their adopted son Viktor.
MARCH 8: A 16-member jury is seated; opening arguments are made.
MARCH 9: The state begins presenting its case.
MARCH 17: Judge Victor Ashrafi admits taped statements given by sons Robert David Matthey and Richard Matthey. Both conflict with testimony they gave in court.
MARCH 23: The mother of Robert Joseph Matthey testifies against him and his wife, saying Viktor slept in the basement when she cared for the children.
MARCH 30: Doctors testify Viktor was healthy when he arrived in the United States in 2000.
APRIL 1: A pediatrician shows jurors graphic images of Viktor while he was hospitalized, showing cuts, bruises and abrasions.
APRIL 7: A pediatrician tells jurors Viktor had an excessive amount of scabbing and lesions two days before his death.
APRIL 12: The medical examiner testifies Viktor did not die from a disease brought on by malnutrition, as defense attorneys are arguing.
APRIL 13: The state rests its case.
APRIL 14: Adoption attorney Carol Allenza testifies that the Mattheys were eager to adopt a child from a poor country and were willing to accept children with health and emotional problems.
APRIL 15: The branch director of a Christian adoption and family services agency testifies that the Mattheys were suitable candidates for adoption. She also said she observed the couple having a "healthy and appropriate" relationship with their children.
Brenda and Robert Matthey talk to their attorneys Wednesday during their aggravated manslaughter trial at the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington.
Brenda Matthey smiles to people in the courtroom Wednesday in Flemington. She and her husband, Robert, are charged in the death of their 7-year-old adopted son, Viktor.