The jury that decided the fate of Karen E. Robidoux was handed a difficult case. Ms. Robidoux, a former member of an Attleboro-area religious sect, was accused of second-degree murder in the 1999 starvation of her infant son, Samuel. The child died after a sect member claimed to have had a religious vision decreeing that he be fed only breast milk.
Composed of three interrelated families, the sect began as a Bible study group in the 1980s and over time grew extreme. Its members believed that modern medicine and the government were instruments of Satan. Patriarch Roland Robidoux and his son, Jacques, wielded firm control over the group’s behavior.
When member Michelle Mingo received a “leading” from God about Samuel’s feeding, Jacques Robidoux went along. He decreed that his son, then walking and eating solids, should receive only breast milk in hourly round-the-clock feedings. But Mr. Robidoux’s wife, then pregnant, was producing little milk.
Defense lawyer Joseph Krowski portrayed Ms. Robidoux as a psychologically battered woman with no support outside the group and little hope of escape. Psychologists testified that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. During the trial she wept often, particularly over images of Samuel.
Under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine how Ms. Robidoux, now 28, ever developed much sense of self. The mother of two children by age 15, she was told then by her sect-member parents to either obey the group or move out. Former sect members testified that she was viewed as a “baby machine” and the “goat” of the group, even by her husband.
For much of the nearly three years she was confined pending trial, Ms. Robidoux was held at Taunton State Hospital, deemed incompetent to follow the proceedings. (Ms. Robidoux has lost custody of all four of her remaining children, including two fathered by Mr. Robidoux.)
On Feb. 3, a Massachusetts Superior Court jury rejected the murder count against Ms. Robidoux and convicted her of a lesser charge of assault and battery. Prosecutor Walter Shea protested that he saw no difference between the actions of Jacques Robidoux, now serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, and his wife’s.
Perhaps Mr. Shea is lucky: He seems unable to imagine a life of such abjectness that it consists of obedience even to the worst cruelty. But sect members who left the group testified that they could imagine it: They beat and starved their own children, they said, in ways that today they would never consider. Luckily for Karen Robidoux, the jury could imagine such a tortured life as well. But our sympathies for her are not unrestrained. An innocent child has died.