Sect case goes to jury

Deliberations continue today in the case of an infant who died because he was denied solid food for 51 days.

Providence Journal/February 3, 2004
By Michael P. McKinney

Taunton -- After hearing fiery closing arguments, a jury yesterday began deliberating whether former Attleboro religious sect member Karen E. Robidoux committed second-degree murder by denying her infant son solid food for 51 days in 1999. The charge carries a life prison sentence, with parole eligibility after 15 years.

Jurors heard the prosecutor, shouting at times, say Robidoux was responsible for letting her son die in front of her, no matter the pressure from sect members who administered a "vision" from God that Robidoux must only breast-feed the baby to atone for vanity. Her husband, Jacques Robidoux, enforced the starvation vision, the defense says. He is now serving life in prison.

"The law holds the parents responsible to do something about it," said Walter Shea, the Bristol County assistant district attorney. "On Day 1, she knew what was happening to her child. She knew what was happening when she couldn't stand to look at her child . . . For 51 days, she knew what was happening.

"Karen Robidoux made a choice. She chose her husband and her faith over the life of her child.'

Shea belted out that this is, first and foremost, about Samuel's victimization, not his mother's at the sect's hands. "After week one, he had lost radical amounts of weight," Shea said. "After week two, he could barely roll over."

Yet it continued week after week, Shea said, with Samuel losing the ability to stand or sit up. It did not happen in a poor West African country or in a city ghetto, Shea said, but "in a house full of food."

It is murder, Shea said.

"Do something!" he shouted at the jury.

But Robidoux's lawyer, Joseph F. Krowski, implored jurors to see that the rigid sect brainwashed Robidoux, cutting her off from the outside world, modern influences and friends. He cited two psychologists who testified that Robidoux suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, memory loss, and depression that clouded judgment and reduced her ability to act.

"The only true and just verdict," for Robidoux, Krowski said, is "not guilty." "This woman never had a chance -- until today. You are her chance. You, in her entire 28 years, are the only chance she is going to have."

Krowski told the jury about Robidoux's difficult family life, with her essentially being born into the sect. "This is about a travesty, an ordeal, a torment, that that young woman suffered her entire life," he said.

Krowski said Robidoux's parents, Roger and Vivian Daneau, were of no help to her. They once gave her an ultimatum: move out at age 15 with two babies or live under their roof as the sect's rigid rules grew more and more extreme.

Krowski cited several former sect members -- prosecution witnesses -- who at times testified they would never do things now they did while in the sect, such as giving up eyeglasses and spanking their children with paddles.

"It was about mind control," Krowski said.

Former sect member Nicole Kidson, Krowski reminded the jury, put it this way: "If it wasn't for my husband, I would still be there."

Krowski asked the jurors to keep an open mind. "Because a child has died does not mean the wrong person should be held accountable," he said.

The jury has eight men and four women, and there are four alternates. Besides the murder charge, Judge Elizabeth Donovan's instructions to the jury describe the optional lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter that carries a sentence ranging from probation to 20 yearsin prison. Or, if the jury decides the prosecutor did not meet that burden of proof, there is the charge of assault and battery.

After 2 1/2 hours yesterday, the jury did not have a verdict. Deliberations resume at 9 a.m. today. A verdict must be unanimous.

In considering the murder charge, jurors must weigh this question of malice: Would a reasonable person, knowing what Robidoux knew then, expect there was substantial chance the child would die if things continued?

The jury will also weigh Karen Robidoux's mental state. Dr. Charlotte Denton, a Taunton State Hospital forensic psychologist who was appointed by the court to evaluate Robidoux's competency for trial, testified yesterday that Robidoux had flashbacks, nightmares and extreme sleeplessness brought on by the sect and the demands of the "vision" for her child.

Shea has suggested the mental conditions were simply the result of Robidoux's grief and guilt over the killing of her son. Yesterday, Krowski asked Denton if someone charged with a serious crime would have posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms as a result of committing the act.

Denton said yes, but added that the content of Robidoux's flashbacks differed greatly. Denton said people she has evaluated who committed murder had flashbacks in which "the content has been about the act" of killing.

In Robidoux's case, Denton said, "She was focused instead on the utter helplessness she felt as she tried to reach out to him."

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