Jury to get case of mother accused of killing son, 2, in motel bathtub


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Sharon Flanagan told a jury Thursday she was lost in thought last year when she left her 2-year-old son in a foot of water playing in a hotel bathtub.

"When I realize I don't hear him playing anymore, I go in and find him facedown in the tub," the 34-year-old woman testified. "I know I wasn't in there when he needed me, and I'll know that for the rest of my life."

Ms. Flanagan, of Inwood, W.Va., is charged with homicide for the death of her son, Steven, who was found lifeless in Room 603 of the Best Western Parkway Center Inn in Green Tree on July 1, 2012. He died five days later.

When the seven women and five men on the jury begin deliberating her case today, they will be able to choose among first-degree murder, third-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and not guilty.

The prosecution alleges Ms. Flanagan killed her son out of spite for her husband, with whom she was divorcing. But the defense claims that Steven died accidentally, and that the woman panicked -- unable to lift him from the water.

Her hair pulled back in a braid, wearing a pale yellow cardigan, long black skirt and black flats, Ms. Flanagan was on the witness stand for about an hour -- the last person to testify in her trial, which began Tuesday before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. Closing arguments will be this morning.

The woman who studied at Pensacola Christian College and has a master's degree in business described her early years with her husband, Steve -- a pastor and children's evangelist.

When they got married, Ms. Flanagan said, she followed the words of the Bible.

"The wife is supposed to submit to the husband, and I tried to do that," she said.

Ms. Flanagan became emotional at times during her testimony, particularly when she described having two miscarriages and her difficulty in carrying a baby to term.

"He was a little miracle," she said of her son's birth, repeatedly referring to him as Baby Steven.

Ms. Flanagan said her family's home life remained good until one day she awoke from a nap to find her husband in a closet, naked from the waist down, with her son.

She believed he had sexually assaulted the little boy.

"I always tried to do what Steve told me to do," she said. "But I stood up to him and told him he couldn't be alone with the baby."

Ms. Flanagan did not call the police, she said, because she was afraid of her husband.

She did tell the jury, though, that she had the toddler examined by doctors for any sign of sexual abuse, and none was found.

Her husband was never charged.

Still, Ms. Flanagan testified, she was fearful her son was being harmed. She did research online to learn what kinds of treatment might be available for the boy and to help her husband.

At one point, she said she did a web search to see if she could dye her son's hair, and then did so because she read that it might make him less sexually desirable.

She explained away online searches about the leading cause of toddler death and Casey Anthony -- introduced into evidence by the prosecution -- by saying she was doing research about child molestation, and the websites were linked together.

The night she checked in to the hotel, Ms. Flanagan said, Steven was excited about swimming, and so she dressed him in swim trunks and Crocs, and filled up the tub, leaving him there.

She returned to the main part of the room, where she said she felt "overwhelmed."

"It was a very difficult time in my life," Ms. Flanagan said.

When she returned to the bathroom and found Steven unresponsive, she said she panicked.

"I remember pulling the plug and running for help," she told defense attorney Nicole Nino.

Several detectives testified earlier this week, saying that Ms. Flanagan told them she was unable to pull the boy out of the bathtub, that his foot was stuck, and that there was some force pulling him down.

But Ms. Flanagan said today that wasn't true.

"I basically just panicked. I felt pain all over my body. I felt paralyzed," Ms. Flanagan said.

When asked why she lied to investigators, the defendant said it was because she feared that her lapse in caring for her son -- and his being harmed -- would lead the courts to give custody back to her estranged husband, if the boy survived.

"I couldn't let Steve get custody back again," she said. "I knew they would take Baby Steven from me, and I couldn't let him go back to a pedophile father."

She said, too, she wanted the detectives to believe she was a good mother.

Throughout her testimony, Ms. Flanagan's ex-husband mumbled obscenities at her under his breath.

On cross-examination, assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini asked Ms. Flanagan repeatedly, "Did you pull him out of the tub?"

The woman gave the same answer, "I pulled the plug and ran for help.

"I've regretted the fact I wasn't there to give Baby Steven help when he needed it. I failed as a mother. I know that. I wasn't there for my son when he needed me."

As she concluded her questioning, Ms. Pellegrini hammered her point again.

"You were so panicked you couldn't pull your baby, who was face down in a foot of water, out of the bathtub?" the prosecutor asked.

"When you say it like that, yes. I wish I would have. I have regrets," Ms. Flanagan said.

She provided no explanation as to what caused Steven to become unresponsive.

Earlier in the day, Allegheny County chief medical examiner Karl Williams said he found no visible injuries that would indicate any kind of trauma or struggle.

"A baby held down in a foot of water in a bathtub doesn't take a lot of force, does it?" Ms. Pellegrini asked.

"No," Dr. Williams answered. "In the case of a 2-year-old, it would be more unusual to find significant evidence of a struggle."

Defense attorney Blaine Jones told the jury during opening statements that the absence of marks or injuries denoting force being used to hold the toddler under the water shows the death was accidental.

On cross-examination, Mr. Jones asked Dr. Williams if it was possible that Steven filled up a toy fire hat he had in the tub with him and drowned by dumping the water over his mouth and face.

"It doesn't seem to me to be a very plausible scenario," Dr. Williams said. Later, he continued, "Kids don't drown very often accidentally in a bathtub with a caretaker there."

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published September 19, 2013 4:30 AM


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