BOSTON (AP) – It’s been nearly five years since little Samuel Robidoux died of starvation, just three days before his first birthday.
His parents, members of a tiny religious cult in southeastern Massachusetts, withheld solid food from the boy for two months after another cult member said she received a message from God, according to prosecutors.
When Samuel’s mother, Karen Robidoux, goes on trial this week, her defense will paint a more sympathetic picture of a woman they say was brainwashed by a cult and terrified to go against the wishes of her husband.
Samuel’s father, Jacques Robidoux, was convicted of first-degree murder in June 2002 and is now serving a life sentence. During his trial, the jury heard detailed excerpts from his diary, in which he described watching his son go from a healthy, 10-month-old boy taking his first steps to a baby so gaunt that his bones showed through his skin.
Prosecutors called it a clear case of murder committed by both parents.
But Karen Robidoux’s lawyer, Joseph Krowski, plans to use a battered woman’s defense, arguing that she endured psychological abuse from her husband and other sect elders that left her powerless to stop her son’s starvation.
Krowski declined to discuss the case before trial. Jury selection was set to begin Wednesday in Taunton Superior Court.
Karen Robidoux’s former attorney, Robert Jubinville, said she snuck food to her son whenever other sect members were not around, but was terrified of violating the rules of the cult or her husband, who was one of the group’s leaders.
“She was afraid because she had been indoctrinated with this religion since she was very young,” Jubinville said Tuesday. “It tore at her – her loyalty to her religion and her husband. I think she probably did the best she could trying to get the child some food on the one hand, and on the other trying to avoid the wrath of her husband and the religious elders in the sect.”
The Robidouxes belonged to a small religious sect known as “The Body,” made up of several families living communally about 30 miles south of Boston.
Sect members considered themselves “God’s chosen people,” according to a former member who testified at Jacques Robidoux’s trial. The group shunned modern medicine and many of the amenities of modern life, including televisions, checkbooks, jewelry and eyeglasses.
In excerpts from Jacques Robidoux’s diary, he described the deterioration of his son after he and his wife followed a message his sister, Michelle Robidoux Mingo, said she received from God. Mingo said God told her that the boy should drink only his mother’s milk and have no solid food.
“As the day grew on, Satan used the physical sight of Samuel to really get to her. He was obviously losing much weight and becoming much weaker,” Jacques Robidoux wrote on March 14, 1999, seven days after the starvation began.
Three days later, Robidoux wrote: “Karen woke up with questions of doubt. ‘What if he does die and I don’t have the faith he’ll be resurrected? What if he wouldn’t be resurrected because of my not doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”‘
Assistant District Attorney Walter Shea declined to discuss the case on the eve of trial. But during Jacques Robidoux’s trial, he said both parents were to blame for their son’s death.
“It was as atrocious an act as you can have when a parent – two parents in this case – kill their child, not in a drug-induced haze, not in a violent rage, but as coldly as one could commit such a horrendous act – day in, day out, for 51 days,” Shea said.
David Yas, editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said Jacques Robidoux’s diary entries, together with Karen Robidoux’s claim that she was brainwashed by the cult, could make her sympathetic to a jury.
“There seems to be evidence that she did not agree with what was going on. That can be very powerful in establishing that she didn’t have the mind-set to complete the crime,” Yas said.
“But the defense doesn’t have an easy job. They’re going to have to convince 12 people that there wasn’t too much she could do to save here child. There are likely to be mothers on the jury who would say, ‘I would have done anything possible to prevent this from happening.'”
If convicted, Karen Robidoux faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
The sect also came under scrutiny for the death of another child, Jeremiah Corneau, whose parents, also sect members, said he was stillborn. The bodies of Samuel Robidoux and Jeremiah Corneau were both found in Baxter State Park in Maine in 2000.