BY MICHAEL P. McKINNEY, Journal Staff Writer
DEDHAM, Mass. — Attleboro religious sect member Karen Robidoux shakes, sobs and curls into a fetal position, unable to talk to her lawyer, when discussion centered on accusations she starved her son to death, a state psychologist testified yesterday. A judge ruled Robidoux not competent to stand trial for the murder, delaying the case four more months.
“She’s in the throes of hell,” Joseph F. Krowski, Robidoux’s lawyer, said yesterday after the hearing at Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham. “She couldn’t deal with what a trial is all about.”
Robidoux’s trial had already been delayed once before, at a hearing in September. The same judge, Elizabeth B. Donovan, yesterday set Karen Robidoux’s next court appearance for May 30. Robidoux could be back in court sooner if Taunton State Hospital doctors find improvement in her ability to communicate. Robidoux will remain in custody and undergo therapy at the hospital until the hearing.
The judge was persuaded by Dr. Charlotte Denton, a state certified psychologist at the hospital, who testified yesterday that during six meetings at the hospital, Robidoux, 27, exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder and “significant signs” of depression. “Particularly related to the death of her son,” Denton said. “I came to the conclusion that she was not able to speak to her attorney” about the details of the case.
Denton said that while Robidoux had no problem discussing and understanding details, such as alternative sentences for the crime, Robidoux consistently became forlorn and unresponsive about the past.
“I don’t think she could tolerate cross-examination,” Denton testified.
Krowski, of Brockton, is pursuing a defense strategy that the Attleboro religious sect controlled Robidoux’s mind, prompting her to deny solid food to her son, 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux. The boy died in 1999 after 51 days in which he was only breast-fed by Robidoux. She had become pregnant again during that time and could not produce enough milk to feed Samuel.
According to earlier court testimony, a co-defendant, G. Michelle Mingo, told sect members of a vision from God that Robidoux needed to atone for vanity in her appearance. Atonement, the testimony revealed, would come by only breast-feeding Samuel.
The incompetency ruling, Krowski said, “buttresses” his strategy because it shows that Robidoux is exhibiting signs of abuse from years of stringent control by the sect.
“She was not responsible,” Krowski said.
Robidoux’s husband, Jacques Robidoux, is serving a life sentence after being convicted last year of first-degree murder in the boy’s death. Karen Robidoux faces a life sentence, with possibility of parole after 15 years, for a second-degree murder charge. She has already pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutor Walter J. Shea called the ruling a “disappointment” but said in an interview that the Bristol District Attorney’s office will not be forever delayed by a defense offering repeated incompetency arguments.
Robidoux “is in a location now where she has all the assistance she needs to address this,” said Shea. “I think in four months, if we have a situation where we see absolutely no change [in competency], then I think they may in fact consider that that’s not a real reaction.”
Shea scoffed at the notion that Robidoux was not in control of her actions when her son starved to death. And he didn’t buy a battered-woman syndrome applying to the case, saying that Robidoux can show no evidence of physical abuse from her husband. In fact, Shea said, the husband and wife remain close.
“The only force that was used was failure to feed their 10-month-old son,” said Shea.
Investigators faced steep challenges before — in gathering proof of the murder and in prosecuting Jacques Robidoux — but have been successful each time, Shea said.”We’ll be there,” he said. “We’ll be there whenever she’s competent. We’re not going to go away. She’s going to have to stand trial.”
Last year, the district attorney’s office and Krowski tried plea negotiations, with Shea rejecting Krowski’s offer of a three- to five-year sentence for Robidoux. Yesterday, Krowski said negotiations are effectively off. He declined to discuss any reduced sentence he would like to see, saying Robidoux’s incompetency made that a moot issue.
As the hearing got under way, court officers led Robidoux into the courtroom as a small media contingent and some members of the sect looked on.
With a clickety-clank, a shackled Robidoux took a seat next to her lawyer. Looking thin, wearing a pink sweater and black boots, Robidoux showed no emotion. Two sisters and a sister-in-law were on hand, but declined comment.