Nanny guilty of killing infant 20 years ago

Melissa Haskell, guilty of third-degree murder.
Melissa Haskell, guilty of third-degree murder.
Posted: June 14, 2012

After deliberating for three hours, a Montgomery County Court jury found Melissa Haskell, a Bridgeport nanny, guilty Wednesday of third-degree murder in the death of an infant in her care 20 years ago.

The eight men and four women responded guilty when individually polled by Montgomery County Court Judge Garrett D. Page at the end of eight days of testimony in Norristown.

Page immediately raised Haskell's bail from $500,000 to $1 million. Haskell, who could be heard sniffling, was led away in handcuffs by sheriff's deputies. Sentencing has not yet been set.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Maloney said the case was "a roller coaster."

"We are extremely pleased. This has been 20 years in the making, and people have been waiting for justice. The fact that this jury was able deliver that for them is very gratifying."

Haskell was charged in the killing of five-month-old Ryan Baurley while she was babysitting for him on the morning of Aug. 26, 1992. She was 18 at the time.

The coroner had attributed the death to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but after Haskell's ex-husband came forward in 2011, saying she had admitted to suffocating the baby while sick with heroin withdrawal, the case was reopened.

In closing arguments Wednesday, the defense portrayed Michael Leflar as a convicted thief and a "master manipulator" who "lies when it suits him;" further, Leflar's statement was an offensive move in a custody dispute over the couple's seven-year-old son.

Defense attorney Martin Mullaney faulted the prosecution for not proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had occurred, outside of Leflar's statement to police.

"There is zero corroboration for the story. This story begins and ends with Michael Leflar," Mullaney argued.

Mullaney argued that there was inconclusive testimony from four medical expert witnesses over what caused the baby's death — ranging from suffocation with a secondary cause of alcohol intoxication, as alleged by a prosecution witness, to undetermined, as a defense expert had maintained.

"You have a 25 percent chance of getting it right," Mullaney argued. "This is blatant, obvious, inherent reasonable doubt."

But prosecutor Maloney countered in his summation that the evidence bolstered Leflar's statement that Haskell had smothered the little boy when she could not stand his crying.

"We know she hadn't had some heroin in 24 hours and was unfit to be there," Maloney argued. "We know that alcohol was given to the baby. We know from her own statement that when that failed, she put her hand over his mouth until he stopped breathing."

Swelling of the infant's organs found by Montgomery County coroner Walter I. Hofman in his review of the case, pointed to a violent death, not a SIDS death, Maloney argued. So did a high level of alcohol found in a sample of the baby's blood.

On that morning, Haskell never tried to help save the baby; she stood apart, impassive, Maloney argued, plotting her next move.

The most dramatic evidence was Haskell's own voice on an audiotape in April 2011 during a meeting with Leflar in his pickup truck outside the Bridgeport Wawa. Leflar wore a wire to capture her words.

Played for the jury during the closing summation, she can be heard saying she would never, ever harm the couple's son the way she did "that baby.

“She never says anything to suggest that she is unfamiliar with the topic," Maloney argued.

In order to find a defendant guilty of third-degree murder, the jury had to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim with malice, Page said. Malice means that a defendant intentionally engaged in an act that he or she knew would cause harm, Page said.

Maloney attributed the verdict to "exemplary police work," including tracking down records that had been archived for two decades.

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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