Couple guilty in tot's death

A couple accused of beating and starving their son were found guilty yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court of second-degree murder and first-degree child abuse.

John J. Griffin and Susan J. Griffin, both 39, will be sentenced March 27 for their roles in the death of the boy, Andrew Patrick Griffin, who was almost 3 when his father took the unresponsive child to a Towson emergency room. Hospital staff described the boy's condition as "shocking."

Each of the charges calls for a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Robin S. Coffin, the lead prosecutor in the case, asked the judge to order that John Griffin, who is free on bail, be incarcerated pending sentencing. Judge Timothy J. Martin declined. Susan Griffin has been in custody since her arrest.

The couple did not look at each other or exchange words after the verdict was announced by Martin, who presided over the nonjury trial that began Feb. 17. Later, after his wife had been led from the courtroom, John Griffin let his head sink into his hands. He walked out and sat on a bench with a friend who had flown from California to testify as a character witness.

"He's very upset," John Griffin's lawyer, Joseph Murtha, said outside the courthouse. "It was a very difficult experience for him to hear what happened to his son."

Murtha said he believed the judge found his client had committed "an act of neglect, of omission." Griffin testified that he had been too busy with his work as a computer engineer to notice his son's condition.

In court earlier, Murtha said that, at most, his client was guilty of a "gross misinterpretation of [the child's] nutritional needs."

Edward T. Barry, one of Susan Griffin's two lawyers, said he had spoken briefly with his client after the verdict was announced. "She understood what happened, that's all I can tell you," he said.

The Griffins had been charged with first-degree murder, but Martin said before announcing the verdicts that there was not sufficient evidence to establish that they deliberately sought to cause Andrew's death. But the judge repeatedly used the word preposterous to describe claims by the Griffins as to their care and concern for the child, and he frequently said, "I don't believe it."

The judge said Andrew looked "wasted away, atrophic, shrunken," in photos taken after his death. His lips were "horribly deformed," his face "frightening to behold." His legs were so thin he was incapable of walking, the judge said, refuting the couple's claim that Andrew had been "running around" with his siblings. The boy had band-like marks on the soles of his feet, suggesting he was beaten there.

Martin rejected the parents' explanations to detectives that the boy often scratched himself, fell or bit the inside of his mouth, causing the dozens of wounds he displayed.

"I cannot believe they're self-inflicted," the judge said.

In one photograph, taken at a birthday party for his little sister, Andrew "looks so forlorn that it's striking," Martin told the capacity crowd in his courtroom. Of all the pictures of the boy, the judge went on, the ones that most affected him were those that showed the tot lying down, lifeless, so emaciated that he had "no buttocks."

Andrew would have been 5 years old last Friday. Of the Griffins' five surviving children, the three youngest are in separate foster homes, the others with John Griffin's mother.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor showed on a screen a photograph of Andrew as a baby, smiling at the camera from his crib, apparently robust. The caption gave his date of birth, Feb. 20, 2005, and that of his death, Dec. 26, 2007. In the next picture, taken after he died, Andrew lies on his back, limbs limp, eyes open, his ravaged body covered with cuts, abrasions and bruises.

He looked, an emergency room doctor testified, like "a Holocaust victim."

The question of how Andrew went from one state to the other in less than three years was central to the trial of the Griffins, who lived in Rodgers Forge.

"You may not starve your child to death," Coffin said, her voice hoarse with emotion. Andrew's parents, she said, failed to seek medical attention for him, even when, as they told the police, he lost a considerable amount of weight a few months before he died.

"He could have been saved," Coffin said, citing the testimony of another doctor. At no point, she said, from the time Andrew was born to the time his father found him lifeless in their bedroom, did the parents sound the alarm to anyone that the boy needed help, that he was not gaining weight as babies should, that he was in a perilous decline.

When a pathologist examined Andrew's body, it weighed 13 pounds, roughly what a normal 3-month-old weighs. His organs were tiny, the doctor said, his brain had begun to shrink, and he had begun to grow a thin covering of hair on his back - an attempt by the body to provide the warmth that his compromised circulation no longer could.

All were signs of advanced starvation, the pathologist said.

Even if it were true that John Griffin was regularly gone from their home for work reasons and that most of the children's care was entrusted to their mother, as he testified, "the responsibility is the same," Coffin said. The less active partner "cannot stand by and do nothing," she asserted.

Michelle Moodispaw, who represented the mother, said Andrew's injuries could have been caused by a fall or by "accidental touching." She said he had no broken bones and suggested that, had the beatings been deliberate, "the injuries would have been worse."

The judge rejected those arguments. He said Susan Griffin did not take her son to see a doctor because she was afraid the abuse would be discovered. In the room where Andrew was found, his blood was spattered on the ceiling, the walls, his bassinet.

"The last month of Andrew's life was, to this judge, torture," Martin said. "I believe something was going on - horrific - in that bedroom."

The judge said he inferred from the evidence that Susan Griffin was frustrated, often tired, harried by people demanding her attention and "angry at her husband."

Andrew, the only person she could control, became "the focal point" of her irritation, Martin said. "I believe she struck him."

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