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Couple's trial in son's death goes to jury


It must decide whether the boy, 5, died of injuries from his adoptive mother or from his Russian parents.

Wendy Ruderman

The Philadelphia Inquirer,

Jurors began deliberating yesterday in the trial of a Franklin Township couple accused in the death of their 5-year-old son.

A key question before jurors is whether they believe Jacob Lindorff suffered his fatal injury before or after Heather and James Lindorff adopted him in October 2001.

During closing arguments in the 12-day Superior Court trial, the prosecution maintained that Heather Lindorff repeatedly had abused Jacob during his six weeks in her home, while the defense laid the blame on the child's biological parents in Russia - a father who whipped him and a mother who bashed his head into the floor and burned him with hot water. The defense also fingered the Russian orphanage where other boys reportedly beat Jacob.

Gloucester County Assistant Prosecutor Mary Pyffer told jurors that while Jacob likely had been abused in Russia, he arrived in the United States alive. "He survived abuses in Russia. He didn't survive six weeks with Mrs. Lindorff," Pyffer said.

Heather Lindorff's lawyer, Stephen Patrick, reminded jurors that none of the state's witnesses had testified to seeing his client strike or harm Jacob.

Heather Lindorff, 39, Jacob's primary caregiver, is charged with aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and endangering the welfare of a child. If convicted, she could face a maximum 30 years in prison on the manslaughter charge alone.

Her husband, 54, is charged with child abuse on allegations that he failed to help his son in the face of repeated abuse. If found guilty, he could serve up to 18 months in prison.

The state's case is built on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of medical experts. Throughout the trial, defense lawyers seized on what they deemed was the state's lack of direct evidence.

"Who testified that they ever saw Heather Lindorff hit Jacob in the head? No one. . . . It didn't happen," Patrick said in his closing argument. "You have no evidence here that any of these injuries were inflicted."

Last week, Gloucester County Medical Examiner Gerald Feigin testified that Jacob had died of blunt head trauma on Dec. 14, 2001. During the autopsy, Feigin said, he found old and new bleeding inside Jacob's head, indicating two injuries - a newer one and an older one. He also noted several bruises on Jacob's body and two second-degree burns, one on his feet and another across his back. He estimated that all of the injuries were less than six weeks old.

One of the state's key witnesses, Lucy Rorke, a Philadelphia-based neuropathologist, testified that both head injuries were no older than six weeks.

Defense witness Gary Ross, a Pennsylvania pathologist, testified that the boy may have died of pneumonia rather than head trauma, and that the head injury could have been older than six weeks.

Ross also boosted the defense's theory that Jacob suffered a severe blow to the head while in Russia and then died after the old injury began to "re-bleed," possibly from an accidental fall in the Lindorff home.

"If you haven't heard enough evidence of head injuries to Jacob in Russia, then you haven't been paying attention," Patrick told jurors yesterday.

Pyffer told jurors: "If you look at the entire picture, you will find the defendant guilty of classic child-abuse death."

Despite all of Jacob's injuries, the Lindorffs never took him to see a doctor, Pyffer asserted. The defense contended that Heather Lindorff had made a doctor's appointment for Jacob, but that he died before the scheduled office visit.

The prosecution focused on inconsistencies between the statement Heather Lindorff gave investigators hours after Jacob's death and her trial testimony.

When investigator's asked her about the burn on Jacob's back after his death, she said his mother in Russia had burned him. Moments later, when confronted with her husband's statement to police, she acknowledged that she might have burned him accidentally in the tub after the boy had an extreme tantrum and she tried to hold him, possibly knocking the hot-water knob.

"I suggest she lied about the burn on his back when she talked to the police," Pyffer told jurors. "What else was she lying about?"

Patrick said his client had failed to initially tell investigators about the episode simply because the injury was too insignificant to recall. He maintained that the more serious burn on Jacob's back had come from his Russian mother.

Two of Jacob's brothers, also adopted from Russia by the Lindorffs in October 2001, testified that their biological mother had burned Jacob's back in the tub.

All five Lindorff children, including three sisters adopted from Russia in 2000, testified in the couple's defense.

The jurors deliberated for about three hours without reaching a verdict. They are expected to resume today.

Contact staff writer Wendy Ruderman at 856-779-3926 or wruderman@phillynews.com.

2003 Dec 19