Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Couple’s Convictions for Abusing Baby and Causing More Than 20 Broken Bones

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the convictions of a baby’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend for inflicting horrific injuries on her tiny body during the first weeks of her life.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dragotta

The mother was convicted of wantonly or recklessly permitting another person to commit an assault and battery on her daughter (causing bodily injury) and her boyfriend (who was not the victim’s father) was convicted of three counts of assault and battery on a child causing bodily injury.  The trial evidence established that the victim was born with no complications in April of 2010.  About five weeks later, the defendants brought the baby to the hospital and reported she was not using her right arm and was crying when the arm was touched.  X-rays showed the arm was broken.  The baby was transferred to Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) commenced an investigation.  Further tests revealed extensive injuries to the baby, including seven broken ribs close to the spine, six more rib fractures on the side and front of the ribs, and multiple fractures of bones in the baby’s arms and legs.  A doctor testified at the defendants’ trial that the injuries overwhelming suggested the baby was abused, and the rib fractures were consistent with a force having been applied to her chest that was equal to the force that occurs in a car accident.  In addition to all of the broken bones, the baby suffered a subdural hematoma (bleeding in the brain).  Because some of the injuries were older than others, doctors concluded the abuse was inflicted on different occasions.

Police and DCF investigators interviewed both defendants.  The baby’s mother admitted that for about a week, her boyfriend had lifted the baby’s legs, pushed them toward her belly, and then pushed down in an effort to relieve the baby’s gas.  The baby cried when the boyfriend did this, and at one point made a disturbing sound that caused the mother to tell the boyfriend not to do it anymore.  When the mother’s boyfriend was interviewed, he immediately took responsibility for the broken ribs, saying he had caused the injuries by pressing the baby’s legs into her abdomen.  The boyfriend said he ultimately stopped manipulating the baby’s legs in that way because he was concerned he was damaging her internal organs.  With respect to the head injury, the boyfriend said he had been holding the baby “like a guitar” and was spinning her around the living room while listening to music.  At one point, he allowed her head to crash into his collarbone, which caused the baby to cry and resulted in a bruise.

The defendants waived their right to a jury trial and chose to have a trial before a judge.  This is the type of case – involving horrible injuries to a child – where it sometimes makes sense to select a bench (jury-waived) trial because there is a risk that jurors will be so disgusted with the defendants’ conduct that they will convict based on their emotions rather than the evidence.  Following their convictions, the defendants appealed and argued primarily that the evidence was insufficient to support the guilty verdicts.  The Appeals Court had no problem concluding the evidence was sufficient.  The Court said the mother should have plainly realized the harm her boyfriend was doing to the baby, but she still allowed him to have contact, sometimes unsupervised, with the baby.  Likewise, the boyfriend certainly should have known he was hurting the baby, as an ordinarily person in the same circumstances would have appreciated the seriousness of the danger of his actions.

In all cases, it is a mistake for a suspect to speak to the police without first consulting with a criminal defense attorney.  In this case, if the defendants had not made statements to the police, it is certainly possible they would not have been convicted of crimes.  Without their statements, the police would have had no idea how the baby was injured.  The defendants sealed their fates the moment they decided to talk to the police.