The question of a Westminster woman's criminal responsibility for charges of child neglect comes down to what her attorney described as a "battle of the experts."
Melissa Arlene Trapani, 46, took an Alford plea to six counts of child neglect in January, but her attorney, William Welch III, argued and had an expert testify that she was not criminally responsible due to a diagnosis of severe, recurrent Major Depressive Disorder, with alcohol use disorder as a secondary diagnosis. An Alford plea means Trapani says she is not guilty but agrees that had the case gone to trial, the state would have been able to prove guilt.
Senior Assistant State's Attorneys Amy Ocampo and Ashley Pamer argued that Trapani was criminally responsible for her actions, including coming up with the idea to build a door with bars on it to keep two children inside. The state had its own expert testify that Trapani was criminally responsible and that her diagnosis was alcohol use disorder, with alcohol use depressive disorder as a secondary diagnosis.
"Your honor, you essentially have a battle of the experts here," Welch said.
Welch argued that presiding Judge Thomas Stansfield should find his expert, Dr. Neil Blumberg, more credible and ultimately find Trapani not criminally responsible.
Because of the Major Depressive Disorder, Trapani could not conform her conduct to what is required by the law, which is the second tier of criminal responsibility in Maryland, Welch said.
According to Maryland code, someone is not criminally responsible if they cannot fully understand the criminality of their actions or conform their conduct to that required by the law due to a mental disorder and mental disability.
There's no question that Trapani was drinking a lot at the time of the offense, Welch said. Dr. Tyler Hightower, who evaluated Trapani for criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial for the state, testified Friday that at one point Trapani said she was drinking 30 beers a day.
It was a question of whether the drinking led to depressive symptoms, as Hightower determined, or if the depressive disorder led to drinking, as Blumberg found, Welch said.
"The question is why? Why in the world is she drinking this much?" Welch asked.
There was also a question of why Trapani would let her home get in such a state, Welch said. In the statement of facts presented at the January plea hearing, the house was described as having feces on the floor in some rooms and on the walls in others. Rooms were also covered in trash, according to the statement.
"There's no question that these children lived under conditions that no one should live under," Welch said.
But Trapani's Major Depressive Disorder prevented her from changing the conditions of her house, Welch argued.
Ocampo, who gave the closing for the state, argued that it was not due to a mental disorder.
"To live in that environment, she must be crazy. But, Your Honor, crazy does not mean not criminally responsible," Ocampo said.
Ocampo said Hightower was the more credible expert, noting that she reviewed files that Blumberg did not to get a full picture of Trapani before, during and after the incident. In making her assessment, Hightower viewed transcripts of interviews between police and Trapani's children, she said.
While on the stand, Hightower said that, in her opinion, alcohol use preceded any depressive disorder symptoms, saying that Trapani told her that she started drinking when she was 15 and heavier alcohol use likely started between 2000 and 2002.
But while drinking daily, she was able to plan out her drinking, Hightower said. She would not start until the kids were at school and then curb back her drinks so she could pick up the children and feed them. Then she would resume drinking, Hightower said.
If Trapani was in a Major Depressive Disorder episode and using alcohol to self-medicate, as Blumberg suggested, she would have had a hard time scheduling her alcohol use. It would also be the same if she had alcohol use disorder, but she might try, Hightower said.
People with Major Depressive Disorder might tell someone they want to do something, like keep the house clean, but would typically follow up with a statement about why they couldn't, such as a lack of energy. They also don't put a positive spin on things, as Trapani had done, or externalize the cause of their problems, like Trapani did when she said the trash on the house's floor was due to one of her children, Hightower said.
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In closing, Ocampo also highlighted the energy Trapani had at the same time Blumberg said she would have had Major Depressive Disorder episodes. Trapani rescued 11 dogs, including one she brought home from Louisiana, a trip she arranged and went on. She also took a 10-day trip to Hawaii, which would have required energy, Ocampo said.
After her kids were taken, which served as a wake-up call, Trapani started to clean the house, including tiling, painting and refinishing the floors. This was before she was seen by any doctor for treatment, Ocampo said.
After hearing both closing arguments, Stansfield told the attorneys that he would take the evidence and arguments under consideration and issue an opinion. It is not clear how long he will take to come to a decision.
Once Stansfield reaches a decision, Paul Trapani, who also took an Alford plea to six counts of neglect, will be sentenced. In January, Stansfield postponed his disposition until after the criminal responsibility hearing.