Extra testimony denied for trial in boy's death

Date: 2002-08-21

Courier News (Bridgewater, NJ)
Dateline: Union Township
By GIOVANNA FABIANO

A Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that prosecutors cannot present additional testimony that a Hunterdon County couple, charged in the hypothermia death of their 7-year-old adopted son, also punished one of their other children with exposure to the cold.

Viktor Alexander Matthey, one of three boys the Union Township couple adopted from Russia in December 1999, died of cardiac arrest from hypothermia on Oct. 31, 2000.

Judge Edward Coleman, at a pretrial hearing in Somerville, said he would not allow the testimony of a former friend of Robert and Brenda Matthey to be heard at trial because it did not provide "clear and convincing evidence" that the couple had a pattern of harsh discipline toward their children.

Lori Rivera, whose husband David worked with Robert Matthey for several years, testified that she was at the couple's Edison home on a cold winter day sometime between 1991 and 1993 helping Brenda Matthey with household chores.

On that day, Rivera said she and Brenda Matthey were "hanging out" in the couple's kitchen when their biological son Richard, who was between 7 and 9, came in from the back yard wearing a T-shirt.

According to Rivera, Brenda Matthey told Richard, "You're not done," to which he replied, "But it's cold outside."

"She said, `Get back outside,' and he obeyed it and just went back outside," said Rivera, who made it clear she was not happy about testifying against the Mattheys, who "were like family."

Rivera also told the court she could not provide the specifics of the incident and that 1992 was a "complete blur" to her because she underwent major brain surgery to curb her epileptic seizures.

James Broscious, the attorney for Brenda Matthey, said Rivera's testimony should be inadmissable at trial because it was "vague and imprecise."

"She has no idea how Richard ended up outside or if Brenda sent him outside -- she kept saying it was such a quick thing, so far all we know there wasn't even a punishment involved," Broscious said.

Coleman ruled against the introduction of additional evidence, citing several problems with Rivera's testimony, including the fact that she did not originally tell prosecutors about the incident when she and her husband were questioned in December 2000. Rivera claimed she was in shock and didn't remember the incident until a few months ago.

In May, Coleman ruled that similar evidence against the couple from testimony provided by members of the Mattheys' church group can be introduced at trial.

In an attempt to resolve the remaining pretrial issues in the case, Coleman also granted a motion filed by The Star-Ledger to quash a subpoena by the Mattheys that asked a reporter to turn over documents obtained in Russia. The reporter, Matthew Reilly, compiled the research during the preparation of a story about the case published in October 2001.

"Mr. Reilly went to Russia and did the legwork that the defense didn't do...it's not his job to come up with a defense theory and hand it to them on a silver platter," said Keith Miller, attorney for The Star-Ledger.

Attorneys for the Mattheys said the documents were crucial to the defense's case. They said they attempted to obtain similar documents which depict the abuse orphans such as Viktor and his brothers, suffered in Russia, but were unsuccessful.

The Mattheys have an expert witness who will testify that Viktor's hypothermia was caused by malnutrition during his early life in Russia.

Coleman said there was not enough solid evidence that defense attorneys attempted to obtain the documents on their own.

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Giovanna Fabiano can be reached at (908) 782-2300 or gfabiano@c-n.com.

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