exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Dead boy's mother cleared of manslaughter


Dead boy's mother cleared of manslaughter

Jurors did convict her of endangering her adopted Russian son. Her husband was found guilty of abuse.

By Wendy Ruderman

Inquirer Staff Writer

WOODBURY - A Franklin Township woman accused in the death of her 5-year-old son was acquitted yesterday of aggravated manslaughter but convicted on a lesser charge for knowingly harming or neglecting the battered and burned child.

The jury, which deliberated for about 11 hours over three days, found Heather G. Lindorff guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, a second-degree crime carrying a maximum 10 years in prison. Her husband, James, was convicted of child abuse, a less serious charge, for failing to seek medical treatment for Jacob Lindorff's injuries.

The jury also acquitted Heather Lindorff of second-degree aggravated assault.

Jacob died of blunt head trauma on Dec. 14, 2001, and the prosecution contended that Heather Lindorff had burned and beaten the boy, delivering the fatal blow less than two months after his adoption.

Mary Pyffer, senior assistant Gloucester County prosecutor, said she was satisfied with the partial conviction, calling the case "very difficult."

"I think there was enough evidence of abuse and neglect in this child," Pyffer said. "No jurors could see the [autopsy] pictures of this little boy without questioning her guilt."

Heather Lindorff's attorney, Stephen Patrick, said he was surprised by the guilty verdict, primarily because the prosecution presented no direct evidence that his client had beaten or burned Jacob.

"I really thought that once we got two not guiltys, we would get three," Patrick said. "They never produced an eyewitness who ever said that she did any of this stuff intentionally."

Prosecutor Sean Dalton said he intended to recommend the maximum sentence for Heather Lindorff, 39.

James Lindorff, 54, faces up to 18 months in prison. Because he had no criminal record, he is expected to receive probation. Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez set a Feb. 19 sentencing date.

The verdict capped a three-week trial in which warmhearted testimony on the Lindorffs' behalf sharply contrasted with that of emergency medical workers who described in graphic detail the boy's injuries, including blistered and peeling second-degree burns on the top of his feet.

The Lindorffs adopted Jacob and his two brothers from Russia just six weeks before his death. They had adopted three sisters from Russia about a year earlier. Paramedics called to the home were unable to revive Jacob after he stopped breathing. Gloucester County Medical Examiner Gerald Feigin ruled he died of blunt head trauma and testified that he believed all of Jacob's injuries had been less than six weeks old.

Throughout the trial, the defense argued that Jacob had been abused by his biological parents and later by the older boys in the Russian orphanage where he lived for several months before his adoption. They asserted that Jacob had suffered a severe head injury in Russia and died when the old injury began to "re-bleed," possibly after an accidental fall at home.

A juror who spoke on condition of anonymity said the prosecution had failed to prove that Heather Lindorff was responsible for Jacob's death.

"He may have had a re-bleed from a simple sneeze," the juror said. "I know someone who got a hernia from a sneeze."

The juror voted to convict Heather Lindorff on endangering the welfare of a child primarily because her story about how Jacob had burned his feet was implausible, the juror said. Lindorff testified that she had thought Jacob burned his feet after getting into a hot tub unattended. The juror said it appeared from the autopsy photo that the boy had been burned with an iron. "If mom's home and she's home 24-7 and something goes wrong in the house, she should know exactly what happened," the juror said.

Investigators questioned Lindorff for about six hours on the morning of her son's death. She initially blamed a burn on Jacob's back on his mother in Russia, but in the police interview she acknowledged that she may have accidentally burned Jacob during a bath.

Walter Gilbert, director of Open Door Adoption Agency Inc., the Georgia-based agency the Lindorffs used to adopt all six children, said yesterday that he was "stunned" by the verdict. He described Lindorff as a "nurturing" mother who is being punished for trying to save six children from an abusive life in Russia.

"The woman is as innocent as you and I," Gilbert said. "This jury and this prosecutor have made a terrible mistake, and it is an injustice to the rest of the children and to this family."

While Jessica lives with the Lindorffs on their Victoria Avenue farm, her four siblings, ages 7 to 13, reside with Heather Lindorff's mother in Vineland. A few weeks after Jacob's death, a Family Court judge gave legal custody of the four children to Heather's mother. If the Lindorffs seek to regain custody, the state Division of Youth and Family Services would intervene.

Patrick said he would ask for a new trial based, in part, on Mendez's decision to drop a fourth-degree child-abuse charge against Heather Lindorff midway through the trial at the prosecution's request.

2003 Dec 23