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Mother testifies about day boy fell ill

Psychiatrist says Beverly woman was depressed, overwhelmed

Kristen LaBrie testified in her own defense in Lawrence yesterday. Kristen LaBrie testified in her own defense in Lawrence yesterday. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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LAWRENCE — A Beverly mother charged with withholding potentially life-saving cancer treatment from her son testified yesterday about the frightening rush to a Boston hospital in fall 2006 that led to his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Her son, Jeremy Fraser, was just 6 years old. He had shown developmental problems and was autistic. He also had severe allergies. But he had never looked that sick before, she said.

“As soon as I looked at him, I knew something was different,’’ Kristen LaBrie, 38, told a Lawrence Superior Court jury yesterday, testifying in her own defense. “He definitely was having trouble breathing, and he knew it, and he was trying to breathe.’’

The testimony came in LaBrie’s trial on charges of attempted murder, assault and battery on a disabled person with injury, assault and battery on a child with substantial injury, and reckless endangerment of a child.

LaBrie appeared nervous as she took the stand, but she seemed to grow more confident as she spoke of her son’s young life filled with physical problems.

In October 2006, Jeremy had trouble breathing at school, and his fingers turned blue. Doctors at a local hospital had no answers for her, and she was frantic during a helicopter ride to Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Jeremy seemed OK; he was calm,’’ said LaBrie, who is scheduled to resume testifying today.

LaBrie is not charged with murder in the death of her son, who died at a hospice in Salem in March 2009, months after she was charged.

Prosecutors allege she withheld chemotherapy medication from Jeremy in the year after his diagnosis, medication that doctors said could have cured him. His disease then progressed to leukemia.

Earlier this week, a doctor who treated Jeremy testified that she confronted LaBrie after she stopped giving the boy medication. A social worker also asked the mother about the medication.

LaBrie’s attorney, Kevin James, has acknowledged that his client stopped giving her son his medication, but said that she was mentally overwhelmed by the stresses of raising a sick child and that it affected her ability to make decisions.

Jeremy Fraser needed constant care and attention, James said. And LaBrie had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, James said. He said her actions were not criminal.

Earlier yesterday, a forensic psychologist testified for the defense that LaBrie was mentally impaired and that she was not able to make the right choices for her son after his diagnosis.

The psychologist, Frederick Krell of Salem, testified that LaBrie did not meet a specific diagnosis for a mental illness, but that she showed multiple symptoms of depression and anxiety that affected her decision-making.

“I think she was depressed, a person who was overwhelmed with having to cope with a significantly impaired child who now had a life-threatening illness,’’ Krell said, adding that LaBrie had previously been treated for depression and was prescribed medicine.

He said LaBrie justified her decision to withhold the medication by noting that Jeremy appeared to be getting better, and was easier to take care of. Really, the boy appeared better because he was not experiencing the side effects of his medication, Krell said.

But, under cross examination by Assistant Essex District Attorney Kate MacDougall, Krell acknowledged that LaBrie lied to several care workers about withholding the boy’s medication.

MacDougall asserted that LaBrie lied because she knew what she was doing was wrong, that it was “child abuse.’’

While questioning Krell, MacDougall also pointed out that one of the initial psychological tests LaBrie completed after she was charged in 2008 raised the concern that she was exaggerating her mental health symptoms, possibly because of the threat of the criminal charges she faced.

Krell responded that LaBrie displayed multiple symptoms of a mental illness because of the multiple stresses she faced at the time, including her son’s illness and the charges.

By then, Jeremy had been removed from his mother’s custody and placed in the care of his father, Eric J. Fraser.

In the months before Jeremy died, his father withheld all medical care based on the recommendations of doctors who said the child’s illness was no longer curable.

Fraser, who told reporters LaBrie had rebuffed his efforts to be involved in son’s life, died in a motorcycle crash in 2010.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.