Mothers online searches focus of trial in boys bathtub death

Prosecution says she drowned son, 2


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In the week before detectives say Sharon Flanagan drowned her 2-year-old son in a hotel bathtub, she visited websites about Casey Anthony, common fatal toddler accidents, first aid, CPR and suffocation.

That, according to prosecutors, shows the required premeditation necessary for a conviction of first-degree murder.

During the second day of trial for Ms. Flanagan, Allegheny County homicide Detective Michael Feeney reviewed for the jury of seven women and five men the various online searches done by the woman on her computer at her Inwood, W.Va., home in late June 2012.

The review of her Internet history was conducted in the days after Ms. Flanagan's son Steven was found unresponsive in a bathtub at the Best Western hotel in Green Tree on the evening of July 1, 2012. He later died at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Ms. Flanagan is charged with homicide, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.

She claims that her son's drowning was an accident and that she panicked when she found him unresponsive in the bathtub and could not pull him out.

But when investigators asked her to explain why, they testified Wednesday, she could not.

"She indicated to me there was some kind of force pulling him to the bottom," Detective Feeney testified. "She could not articulate in any words what that force might have been holding him down."

Ms. Flanagan told investigators during her interviews that Steven was able to climb in and out of a bathtub on his own and that he loved playing in water.

On Wednesday afternoon, Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini showed the jury photos of the boy taken from Ms. Flanagan's digital camera.

In them, he can be seen playing in a bathtub and in a shallow pool -- wearing the same swim trunks and black Crocs he had on in the hotel bathtub, with his red fire hat nearby.

As the photos were displayed, Steven's father, who was sitting in the gallery, openly cried, holding his right hand over his heart.

Detective Steven Hitchings, who also interviewed Ms. Flanagan and was involved in the decision to charge her, told the jury that her explanation of the drowning was not plausible.

"The story she was relating to us did not seem believable to me as a parent," he said. "I couldn't understand why she couldn't get him out of the tub. It was bizarre. She was a physically fit person. There's no excuse you couldn't pull your son out of the tub."

Defense attorney Blaine Jones told the jury during his opening statement that the toddler died accidentally, and said if he had been forcibly drowned, there would have been marks on his body from his attempting to fight.

To nearly every witness, Mr. Jones asked if there were any marks on the boy indicating a struggle, or any on Ms. Flanagan showing defensive wounds.

Each witness has said there were none.

But Detective Hitchings on cross-examination said, "I wouldn't expect to see any defensive wounds in a situation like this involving a 2-year-old child."

Recalled to the stand Wednesday afternoon, Detective Feeney listed for the jury some of the search history found on the woman's computer.

Included were visits to livestrong.com where Ms. Flanagan found information showing that vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for toddlers, but drowning is No. 2. He also noted that she searched and clicked repeatedly on stories about the popularity of Casey Anthony and America's obsession with the woman who was eventually found not guilty in the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.

But Mr. Jones attempted to minimize that information, getting the detective to admit that the Casey Anthony searches were all done within a minute of one another and that they occurred around the same time that Casey Anthony was sued for defamation -- more than a year after the not guilty verdict in her trial.

In addition, under cross-examination by Mr. Jones, Detective Feeney said he found a number of searches on Ms. Flanagan's computer related to advocacy for children who have been sexually abused.

Ms. Flanagan had previously accused her husband, from whom she was separated, of sexually abusing their son, although detectives said the boy was examined, and no abuse was found.

The trial before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning will continue through the week.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published September 18, 2013 5:15 PM


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