exposing the dark side of adoption
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Author: Jane M. Von Bergen, Inquirer Staff Writer

Article Text:

Mimi Rohrer will not be prosecuted again in the 1975 death of her young son, Billie, a prosecutor from the New Jersey attorney general's office said yesterday.

During Rohrer's murder trial in the fall, a Camden County Superior Court jury could not agree on a verdict. The judge declared a mistrial Dec. 17, after about three months of testimony.

Rohrer, 43, the estranged wife of Haddon Township Mayor William G. Rohrer Jr., had been accused of killing her son through a pattern of child abuse.

The Rohrers adopted Billie in El Salvador in February 1975; he died May 28, 1975. Testimony about his age when he died - 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 - differed.

"I'm grateful that someone in the state of New Jersey has listened to what I've been saying," Rohrer said after hearing of the state's decision. "I believe completely in my heart that the 14 weeks I gave my son was the best care he ever got in his life."

Rohrer, who learned of the decision while watching her attorney, Nino V. Tinari, during a trial involving the Pagans motorcycle club in federal court in Center City, said she was seeking complete vindication.

Tinari, who said he was "thrilled to death" by the state's decision, said he would file a motion in New Jersey Superior Court seeking to have Rohrer's arrest record expunged.

Donald R. Belsole, director of the attorney general's criminal-justice division, said his office decided not to retry the case because the jury could not agree on a verdict even though "both sides at the trial were able to put before the jury all relevant and material facts."

"It is unlikely that a retrial would give rise to a different result" in view of the murder charge in the indictment, Belsole said. And even though a murder charge is more difficult to prove than a manslaughter charge, he said, ''the death of the infant mandated that we submit it to a jury, regardless of the problems inherent in the case."

In a few days, Belsole said, the state will file a motion before Superior Court Judge I. V. DiMartino, Camden County's assignment judge, of its intention not to prosecute.

After seven hours of deliberations, the jury was split 10-2 in favor of acquittal, foreman Brenda Sabella said after the mistrial was declared. She said that the jurors generally agreed that Rohrer had abused Billie and that most of them thought Rohrer had caused his death.

But the charge of second-degree murder, Sabella said, required the state to prove intent and malice - and the state convinced only two of the 12 jurors that Rohrer had wanted to kill Billie.

Of the state's decision not to retry the case, William Rohrer said: "That was the right thing to happen. It shouldn't have gone at all to any hearing."

Rohrer, 75, said his prominence as a politician and banker made the case a publicity-grabber and probably led to the prosecution in the first place.

William Rohrer said the trial cost him $700,000 in legal expenses and broke up his marriage. He said he intended to file for divorce. The Rohrers have been separated since two weeks before the trial began.

Mimi Rohrer had accused her husband of conspiring with her trial attorney, Raymond M. Brown of Newark, N.J., to follow a defense strategy that would shield her husband from any blame in Billie's death.

During the trial, Mimi Rohrer repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to fire Brown. Tinari and Brown ended up suing each other in disputes about each other's conduct in the case.

"I don't think she deserved to be retried," Brown said yesterday of the state's decision. "She's been through enough hell."

Cherry Hill lawyer Anthony J. Zarrillo, who was a state deputy attorney general when he prosecuted the case, said he was "disappointed at the decision not to retry the matter, and my disappointment stems from the fact that I think the evidence showed she did kill the child."

"The public statements of the jurors show they felt she killed the child, even though they could not agree on the murder verdict," Zarrillo said.

After Judge David G. Eynon declared the mistrial, Zarrillo had said he hoped that the state would retry the case.

Zarrillo said then that the outcome might have been different if the jury had considered a manslaughter charge instead of second-degree murder. By the time that a grand jury indicted Rohrer on Dec. 3, 1982, the five-year statute of limitations on manslaughter had lapsed.

The action yesterday by the state attorney general's office marked the end of nine years of investigations and hearings in the case.

Immediately after Billie's death, Camden County's medical examiner, Dr. William T. Read, ruled that Billie died of "severe contusions" to the brain that were self-inflicted. Camden County prosecutors, after an investigation,

closed the case.

But in 1976, the State Commission of Investigation began studying six deaths in Camden County that had been ruled accidental. One of the victims was Billie Rohrer.

On Dec. 3, 1982, a grand jury indicted Mimi Rohrer. She pleaded not guilty.

To support its case, the prosecution presented witnesses who said they had seen Mimi Rohrer hit Billie, often without provocation. A family psychiatrist and pediatrician testified that they had been worried about the boy's well- being.

The defense presented witnesses who said they saw Billie bang his head against a wall or a floor, apparently without feeling pain.

Defense medical experts said they could not determine how Billie died. In light of that, they said, they could not rule out the possibility that he died of natural causes or of an organic brain disease.

Pathologists testifying for the state disagreed. They said the boy died of head injuries, most likely inflicted by another person. They ruled out natural causes.

Child-abuse expert Dr. Stephen Ludwig of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia said Billie's injuries were similar to those that he had seen in countless child-abuse cases. Using pictures of the boy's body, Ludwig pointed out human bite marks, bruises and marks caused by an object such as a belt.

"I think it's an affront to the justice afforded children in the United States," Ludwig said yesterday of the state's decision. "I think the repetitive nature of the injuries demonstrated her intent to hurt him. There is no justice involved for this kid."

1985 Jan 24