Taunton -- A jury yesterday found Karen E. Robidoux not guilty of murdering her infant son, who starved to death as she followed a rigid Attleboro religious sect's "vision" that it was God's will that he be fed only breast milk.
Superior Court jurors largely agreed with the defense that Robidoux was a frightened, mentally battered woman who was mind-controlled by the sect into denying the boy, 10-month-old Samuel, solid food. He died short of his first birthday in April 1999. According to testimony, Robidoux was told God would kill a child she was pregnant with if she continued giving Samuel solid food.
Only moments before, she looked anxious, shifting in her seat. But as the jury foreman read the verdict, Robidoux, standing and dressed in a striped sweater, hugged defense lawyer Joseph F. Krowski. Tears fell. She beamed. Outside, she met a wall of cameras.
"It hasn't fully hit me yet. I'm just glad that the nightmare door is now shut," Robidoux told reporters.
Besides acquitting Robidoux of second-degree murder, the jury also rejected a less severe option, involuntary manslaughter.
She was found guilty by the Superior Court jury of eight men and four women of the least punitive option, assault and battery. Because of time already served, Robidoux will not return to prison.
Krowski, Robidoux's defense lawyer, said he believed in his and Robidoux's ability to persuade the jury. "I just had a real deep-seated confidence that the right thing was going to happen," he said. "This is going to open up a whole new vista of considering psychological impairment as a court defense."
Krowski said the jury recognized that Robidoux grew up "in extraordinary torment" from her own family, which was deeply involved in the sect. If not for leaving the sect, Krowski said, Robidoux "would have been the next to go" after Samuel's death.
The verdict shocked the Bristol County district attorney's office -- and drew an unusually tough rebuke.
"Never before in 14 years as district attorney have I been this disturbed by a verdict; I remain terribly disappointed with this verdict and this outcome," District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said in a statement. "The jury contradicted itself. They found that [Robidoux] committed the act but chose to ignore the death caused by the act. This much is certain: Samuel was systematically starved to death before his first birthday by his father and by his mother."
Walter Shea, the Bristol County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, said: "I don't really see a difference between the actions of the father and the mother."
The jurors agreed to be tightlipped about their decision. They gathered for 2 1/2 hours Monday and for 4 1/2 hours yesterday around a small rectangular table inside a hot room to deliberate, according to juror Richard Landry, of Attleboro.
Juror William Spreyer, of Rehoboth, said it was hard to satisfy everyone, but "we worked together and we made our decision."
A key issue among jurors was whether or not it was proven that Karen Robidoux was involved in a "joint venture," as the legal world describes it, in which she aided her husband in the act of killing Samuel.
Though many in the sect knew of and endorsed the baby's starvation diet, it appears only Karen Robidoux's husband, Jacques Robidoux, will serve time. He was convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder in Samuel's death, and received a sentence of life without parole.
Others, such as sect elders who endorsed the "vision" for Samuel, are not facing charges and are still involved in the sect. The sect children have been removed, most adopted out.
The success of the defense -- based on descriptions of mind control and a battered woman who was not physically abused -- surprised one legal expert.
"I think it is a bit unusual for a defendant to be successful with a psychological defense. In the commonwealth, we've seen a lot of cases in the last few years where the defendants have not prevailed using some sort of mental-illness defenses," Robert Ward, dean of the Southern New England School of Law, in Dartmouth, said in a phone interview. "I'm surprised."
The Attleboro sect, started as a Bible-study group by Roland Robidoux in the mid-1980s, grew more extreme in the 1990s. Influential members shared visions, called "leadings," that the others were expected to follow, such as the breast-milk-only diet for Samuel. Karen Robidoux was told to do it by sect member G. Michelle Mingo to atone for Robidoux's alleged vanity.
Former sect members, called as prosecution witnesses, said one after the other under questioning from Krowski that they did things in the sect they would not contemplate now, from spanking children with paddles to going on a Maine trip in which they and their children did not eat for three days.