Mother of drowned toddler found guilty of first-degree murder
September 20, 2013 7:52 PM
Paula Reed Ward/Post-Gazette
Sharon Flanagan is escorted into court this morning.
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sharon Flanagan's outburst after the jury pronounced her guilty of first-degree murder was sudden and strange.
The 34-year-old woman, who had said over and over in her testimony that she loved her baby and did not kill him, stood at the defense table and accused a detective of sexually abusing her at the jail.
Sobbing, she pleaded with the court, "Please, I'll serve any sentence. I can't be abused in that prison. Judge Manning, please."
Judge Jeffrey A. Manning immediately had the West Virginia woman removed from the courtroom, and according to Allegheny County sheriff's Lt. Jack Kearney, she "ranted incoherently" all the way to her holding cell.
The strange scene came at the end of an emotionally difficult trial in which the prosecution accused Ms. Flanagan of purposely drowning her 2-year-old son, Steven, in the bathtub to get back at her estranged husband, whom she believed sexually abused the boy.
The defense argued that the boy died accidentally, and that when Ms. Flanagan found him lying facedown in the bathtub, she panicked and froze.
The woman, who was also found guilty of endangering the welfare of children, will be sentenced by Judge Manning on Dec. 9. She faces a mandatory prison term of life without parole.
During closing arguments Friday morning, defense attorney Blaine Jones told the jury that in the court of public opinion, his client was guilty almost immediately.
But, he continued, "This is a court of law. Evidence rules the day in a court of law."
During his 20-minute closing, Mr. Jones said that Steven was Ms. Flanagan's whole world.
"Sometimes, accidents happen. The evidence simply doesn't say there's anything more."
Ms. Flanagan found her son unresponsive in the bathtub at the Best Western Parkway Center Inn in Green Tree the evening of July 1, 2012. She had put him in his swim trunks to play in the tub.
She testified Thursday that she left the bathroom and went into the main part of the hotel room and became lost in her own thoughts.
When she realized she no longer heard the boy playing,and found him not breathing, Ms. Flanagan pulled the plug from the tub and ran for help. However, she never told anyone she encountered in the hotel what had happened. Instead, she clutched her stomach, shouting, "My baby, my baby."
It took several minutes before hotel security and other guests were able to get into her room and found Steven in the bathtub.
"Ms. Flanagan was upset. She was distraught. She was in a panic. She couldn't formulate the thought," Mr. Jones said. "It's easy to sit here in this courtroom and say this is what we would have done."
Later, he continued, "Unfortunately, she froze. I can't cast judgment on her, ladies and gentlemen. Everybody reacts differently."
Mr. Jones focused at the end of his closing on the commonwealth's burden of proving Ms. Flanagan guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"If you think she's probably guilty, that's not enough," he said. "If you think she's possibly guilty, that's not enough. If you suspect she's guilty, that's not enough."
But assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini, in her closing, said there is no doubt.
"This case is about maternal instincts. Everything about this is what would a parent do to save her own child? The one person who was supposed to protect him.
"What would any human being do when any child is face down in a tub drowning?"
Instead, Ms. Pellegrini continued, Ms. Flanagan purposely killed her son to keep him away from her estranged husband.
"I wish, I wish, I wish the defendant wasn't the person she is," Ms. Pellegrini said. "I wish, I wish, I wish she didn't have so much hatred in her heart to do this to her ex-husband.
"But she's not. She's not like the rest of us. I told you it would be hard to wrap your mind around this case."
To Mr. Jones' argument that Steven had no marks on his body showing signs of a struggle, the prosecutor dismissed it.
"A small amount of water is enough to stop his heart. That baby's not going to fight back against his mommy."
Ms. Pellegrini reiterated to the jury her contention that Ms. Flanagan is guilty of first-degree murder, which requires premeditation. Among the reasons she cited, the woman in the days before her son's death did searches online for things like "leading cause of toddler death," and "why is Casey Anthony so popular?"
"Who looks on the Internet for the leading causes of toddler death? Who does that? Someone planning to murder their child," she said. "The court will tell you premeditation can happen like that," the attorney said, snapping her fingers. "But let me tell you, the premeditation to kill that child occurred weeks before."