Taunton -- A leader of an Attleboro religious sect who said he slowly starved his baby son to death to follow a prophecy from God was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jurors rejected Jacques Robidoux's tearful testimony that he believed a miracle would save his dying son Samuel, concluding that Robidoux intentionally subjected the child to an agonizingly cruel death. "It wasn't a case about religion," Walter Shea, the Bristol County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, told reporters after the verdict. "Two parents killed their child - not in a drug-induced haze, not in a violent rage, but as coldly as one could commit such a horrific act, day in and day out for 51 days."
Robidoux, 29, stood impassively as a jury of seven men and five women delivered its verdict before lunch, after deliberating for just under 6 1/2 hours over two days. As he was led away by two court officers, Robidoux waved to his parents and in-laws, who were seated in the front row of the gallery and are members of the same Attleboro sect that rejects modern medicine, government, and science.
His wife, Karen, who is charged with second-degree murder in her son's death, is tentatively scheduled to stand trial Aug. 19. His sister, Michelle Mingo - who witnesses testified was the source of the prophecy that prompted the Robidouxs to stop feeding their son solid food - is awaiting trial on an accessory charge. Both women are currently jailed without bail.
"I continue to believe that he is a good person," said attorney Francis M. O'Boy, who represents Robidoux. "Unfortunately, the religious beliefs that had been drilled into him since he was a youngster clouded his ability to make the right decision. I think he was taking the bullet for other members of the family."
An appeal is automatic in first-degree murder cases, but O'Boy said he'll also file a motion for a new trial Monday on a variety of grounds. He had argued that Robidoux's religious beliefs prevented him from understanding that his son was going to die.
In 1993, the state Supreme Judicial Court overturned the manslaughter conviction of two parents, David and Ginger Twitchell, Christian Scientists whose toddler son died in 1986 of a bowel obstruction because they failed to seek medical treatment. While the conviction was overturned because evidence favorable to the defense had been excluded, the court firmly rejected the argument that parents could neglect the health of their children on religious grounds. The Twitchells were not retried.
In the Robidoux case, jurors had the option of finding him guilty of lesser charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, or assault and battery, which all carry shorter prison terms.
Bristol Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Donovan instructed jurors that to find Robidoux guilty of first-degree murder, they had to find that prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed his son "with extreme atrocity or cruelty."
The jury's verdict signaled its belief that Robidoux's religious convictions hadn't blinded him to the fact that he was slowly killing his son, Shea said.
"This wasn't about lifestyle. People can make reasonable choices," Shea said. "Samuel would have lived if only he had been fed."
The sect, which was founded by Robidoux's father, is composed mainly of two extended families. A core belief of the group is that members must follow the prophecies that other members say they have received from God.
In late Februrary 1999, witnesses testified, Mingo had a vision that God was unhappy because Karen Robidoux was thin and vain. Mingo told the Robidouxs that Karen should drink a gallon of almond milk a day and put Samuel on a breast-milk-only diet.
The child, then 10 months old, had been eating solid food, including Cheerios and applesauce, for weeks, according to testimony.
While testifying Wednesday, Jacques Robidoux choked back tears as he described how Samuel's health deteriorated when he did not get enough nourishment from his mother, who was then pregnant and apparently not producing enough breast milk.
"He began losing weight," Robidoux told jurors. "His cry wasn't a normal baby's cry . . . Sometimes his eyes would roll to the back of his head."
Over seven weeks, Samuel went from a healthy boy just taking his first steps to an emaciated baby who could barely move, according to Robidoux.
Although Robidoux acknowledged that he knew his son wasn't getting adequate nourishment, he said he continued withholding solid food from the child while he and his wife held constant prayer vigils, expecting a miracle.
"In that mindset, I couldn't have made any other decision than I did, because that's what I had ingrained in my head," said Robidoux, who testified that he believed his son would be resurrected if he died.
O'Boy had argued that Samuel was already sick with scurvy before his parents decided to stop feeding him. He also urged jurors to acquit Robidoux or find him guilty only of assault, arguing that Robidoux's religious beliefs prevented him from realizing that his child would probably die.
After Samuel died on April 26, 1999, just three days before his first birthday, his body was stored in a bulkhead of the family's home for months, then buried in October of that year in Baxter State Park in Maine, according to testimony.
Eighteen months after Samuel's death, David Corneau, a sect member who began cooperating with authorities, led them to the gravesite. The remains of Corneau's newborn son, Jeremiah, were found buried beside Samuel. The Corneaus say the baby was stillborn and have not been charged in his death.
As for Robidoux, he now knows what he did was wrong and no longer has blind faith in the visions that left his son dead and will send him to prison for life, according to O'Boy.
"He's chock full of remorse," O'Boy said.
Still, "at the end of the day, there was a dead baby," said O'Boy. "It was a very difficult case to defend."
Jacques Robidoux was found guilty yesterday of first-degree murder in the starvation death of his 11-month-old son, Samuel.
NOV. 9, 1999 The investigation of the religious sect sometimes referred to as as The Body began after police were informed that a child was missing from the home. Upon further investigation, police learned that two children were missing: Samuel Robidoux, almost 1, whose parents are Jacques and Karen Robidoux; and Jeremiah Corneau, an infant born in August 1999 to Rebecca and David Corneau. The other children in the sect were taken into protective custody by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. Jacques Robidoux, 26, refused to say what happened to his son, and was held on contempt of court charges. Karen Robidoux, the child's mother, was also jailed.
NOV. 18 Police start to search the vast, heavily wooded 204,733-acre Baxter State Farm in Maine for the remains of Samuel Robidoux and Jeremiah Corneau. After four days scouring the area with search teams and cadaver-detecting dogs, the search is called off.
NOV. 19 Investigatiors seized notebooks from the group's home in Attleboro, looking for direct references to where the two boys might be buried in Maine. In a search warrant application, made public, David Corneau told investigators that his child, Jeremiah, was stillborn in August and "never had a breath life. The Lord never gave it to him."
AUG. 31, 2000 Rebecca Corneau, then pregnant, was ordered into custody by a judge at the request of prosecutors who feared for the welfare of her unborn child.
OCT. 16 Rebecca Corneau gives birth to a 7-pound, 15-ounce baby girl. Custody of the infant is given to an aunt and uncle outside of the sect.
OCT. 24 Under an agreement between David Corneau's attorney and prosecutors, he and his wife, Rebecca, are granted immunity and David Corneau agrees to testify against Jacques Robidoux and show authorities where Samuel Robidoux was buried. David Corneau goes to Baxter State Park and points out the spot where the group had buried two of its young children.
JUNE 3, 2002 Jacques Robidoux stands trial for the death of his son.
JUNE 14 Robidoux is found guilty of first-degree murder.