Bridgeport nanny goes for ‘all or nothing' in murder trial

Posted: June 13, 2012

The Bridgeport nanny standing trial in the death of an infant 20 years ago Tuesday waived her right to have the court consider her offense under the lesser legal standard for homicide.

With jurors out of hearing, Melissa Haskell, 38, who is charged with third-degree felony murder, told Montgomery County Court Judge Garrett D. Page that she did not wish to have the charge downgraded to involuntary manslaughter.

"So you're going with all or nothing," Page said. "Yes," Haskell replied.

If convicted of manslaughter, a first-degree misdemeanor in 1992, Haskell could have been sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

By insisting on the third-degree felony charge, she exposes herself to the far greater penalty of 10 to 20 years in jail.

Asked to explain his client's thinking, defense counsel Frank Genovese said: "She has steadily maintained her innocence from the first day we met.

“She didn't want to create a situation where that would be compromised, and the jury would find her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. She didn't want to create that risk."

The development came near the end of the seventh day of testimony before the jury of eight men and four women. The defense rested in late afternoon; closing arguments begin early Wednesday.

In a calm, clear voice, Haskell also told Page from the witness stand that she would not testify in her own defense. She does not have to, and her decision cannot be used against her.

"I 100 percent agree with it — not to testify," Genovese said in a news briefing in the Norristown courtroom.

Haskell, then 18, was caring for five-month-old Ryan Baurley in Bridgeport on Aug. 26, 1992, when he died. The coroner attributed his death to sudden infant death syndrome.

The case was reopened in 2011 when Haskell's estranged husband, whom she was fighting for custody of their own 6-year-old son, approached police.

Michael Leflar told investigators she had told him she "put her hand over the baby's mouth and nose" to quiet his crying while she was ill from heroin withdrawal.

After reviewing the case, Coroner Walter I. Hofman changed the cause of death to suffocation, with a secondary cause of acute alcohol intoxication, due to high blood-alcohol levels in a sample of the baby's blood.

Hofman changed the manner of death to homicide, the basis for the murder charge against Haskell.

During testimony Tuesday, two expert witnesses tried to challenge Hofman's interpretation of details in the autopsy report.

George Jackson, a forensic toxicologist who works in Bensalem, testified he could not rule out fermentation of the blood sample as the source of the high alcohol readings. The prosecution had tried to make a case that Haskell gave the baby whiskey to quiet him.

Edward Chmara, a New Jersey forensic pathologist, testified that both cause and manner of death should be ruled "undetermined."

"There is no scientific evidence to back up suffocation. There are no photos to back up suffocation. There is nothing that changed except a statement that came forward from a concerned citizen," he testified.

Chmara testified that most of the baby's organs showed congestion or the backup of fluids typical of any death. That would not necessarily be caused by suffocation, he testified.

He regarded as unremarkable the baby's enlarged brain and larynx, which Hofman had testified were abnormally swollen, pointing to suffocation.

As a rebuttal witness for the prosecution, Hofman said his reading of the enlarged organs as abnormal came straight out of the pediatrics textbook.

"The brain is too big, the lungs and liver are congested. All of these are abnormal findings," Hofman testified.

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com. Read her blog MontCo Memo at www.philly.com.

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