The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a Salem mother’s conviction for attempted murder in a case where the defendant failed to provide her son with medication to treat his cancer. The son later died when the cancer recurred and the case garnered national media attention. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. LaBrie.
In 2006, the defendant’s autistic son was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. The defendant and her son’s father were no longer together and the defendant was the primary caretaker. The son’s doctor created a treatment plan that involved five stages of chemotherapy. While some of the medications were administered to the son during hospital stays, the defendant was responsible for picking up other medications from the pharmacy and giving them to her son at home. The doctor estimated the long-term survival rate for children with the type of cancer at issue was 85-90 percent.
The first phase of the treatment involved a two-week hospital stay that intended to send the cancer into remission, and it was successful in this case. The next two phases required some hospitalizations, but the defendant was responsible for treating her son at home with a variety of medications. Pharmacy records revealed the defendant did not fill the prescriptions in a timely fashion, and months would sometimes pass without the prescriptions being filled. During this time period, a nurse regularly visited the defendant and her son at their home and the defendant said the son was taking his medications. Months after beginning treatment, the defendant’s son was diagnosed with the flu. When the defendant did not make him available for a blood test, the doctor called the pharmacy to ensure his prescriptions had been filled during his treatment. The doctor discovered the defendant had not been filling many of her son’s prescriptions and followup tests revealed the son’s cancer had returned. The Department of Children and Families became involved and the defendant lost custody of her son to the son’s father. The son died the following year from complications related to cancer. The defendant was charged with a number of criminal offenses, the most serious being attempted murder. She was convicted and sentenced to 8-10 years in state prison.
With respect to the attempted murder conviction, the defendant argued on appeal that her trial attorney had provided ineffective assistance and she is therefore entitled to a new trial. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed and reversed the conviction. One of the elements of attempted murder is a specific intent to kill. The Commonwealth’s theory of the case was that the defendant was so angry at her estranged husband that she intended to kill her son in retaliation. The SJC ruled the defendant’s trial attorney should have called his own expert oncologist to testify that parents of children with cancer often do not fully comply with chemotherapy protocols. These parents don’t fail to act out of malice – instead, they can’t appreciate the importance of strict adherence to the medication regime and the risks associated with a failure to fully medicate. An expert hired by the defendant’s appellate attorney testified that only 40-50 percent of parents are in full compliance when it comes to providing long-term medication therapies to their children. The Court concluded that such information would have been important for the jury to hear in determining whether the defendant intended to kill her son. Accordingly, the defendant’s trial attorney’s decision not to call his own oncology expert was unreasonable and it deprived the defendant of a legitimate defense. The Court remanded the case back to Essex Superior Court and the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to retry the defendant on the attempted murder charge if it so chooses.