Woman guilty of manslaughter in toddler's death

The Baltimore Sun

A Harford County woman was found guilty of manslaughter yesterday after she said she mistakenly gave a 16-month-old boy methadone in December 2004.

Elaine Marie Butler, 54, of Darlington, a former registered nurse, was on trial for the second time on the manslaughter charge after a jury found her guilty of reckless endangerment last year but deadlocked on the manslaughter charge.

Harford County Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron is expected to sentence Butler tomorrow on the reckless endangerment and manslaughter charges.

Will Abercrombie, Butler's attorney, said he would file motions after the sentencing this week. Her husband, Frank Butler, declined to say whether his wife would appeal.

"I don't want to discuss it other than that she's innocent," Frank Butler said.

In December 2004, Butler testified, she took from the cupboard a Mickey Mouse "sippy" cup containing methadone and gave it to the toddler, Ashton Timothy Preston, thinking that it was strawberry juice.

Minutes after the child sipped the liquid, Butler said, she was told that the cup had contained methadone belonging to the child's mother, Kelley Jean Briggs. Briggs was using the methadone to treat a heroin addiction. Butler said she had allowed Briggs and Ashton to stay at her home because Briggs' trailer lacked adequate heating.

Last year, Briggs pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.

In testimony this week, Butler said she and Briggs, who were friends from church, did not call medical authorities and decided to observe the child. Butler then cooked dinner, watched television and fell asleep.

Butler said she did not call for help because the child was behaving normally, running around and playing on his rocking horse. She said she woke up later that evening to find the child unresponsive.

The child died of a methadone overdose, and an autopsy revealed 15 to 35 milligrams of methadone in his body. A child can be safely given 1 milligram, according to medical officials.

Describing the incident as a "tragic accident," Abercrombie said, "Elaine Butler was the kind of individual who took a heroin-addicted mother into her home, worked eight hours a day, and fed a mother and her infant.

"Butler did what she thought was proper," he said in his closing argument, reiterating that the defendant had watched for symptoms but saw none.

Assistant State's Attorney Salvatore Fili portrayed the defendant differently. Butler, who was under investigation by the Maryland Board of Nursing at the time of the incident, did not call 911 after the child ingested methadone because she didn't want to place her nursing license in jeopardy, he said.

"This child ingested death, and she did not call a pediatrician because she knew she'd lose her license. ... She went to sleep and abdicated responsibility for the child. And he died," Fili said.

Fili showed the jury a photo of a beaming blue-eyed, blond boy, then showed a photo of an ashen toddler in the hospital after swallowing the methadone. Several jurors wiped away tears, and the child's family wept.

After the verdict, Timothy Preston, the child's father, said, "I feel like justice was served. We all got some closure. I think we can all start moving on."


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