THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Woman who withheld son’s cancer drugs found guilty

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By Milton J. Valencia and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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LAWRENCE — Taking less than seven hours to deliberate, an Essex Superior Court jury delivered a sweeping verdict yesterday against a mother who withheld life-saving cancer treatment for her young son, finding her guilty of attempted murder and assault and battery on the child.

Kristen LaBrie began to weep as the verdict was read, and court officers placed her in custody until her sentencing on Friday. At one point, she leaned toward her family, seated in the front row of the courtroom, and told her younger sister, Elizabeth O’Keefe: “Tell everybody I’m OK, OK? It’s going to be OK. I love you.’’

LaBrie, now 38, was convicted 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, for withholding medication from her son, Jeremy Fraser.

Authorities said Jeremy was diagnosed with a treatable case of non-Hodgkin’s lym phoma in October 2006, just after he turned 7, but that LaBrie failed to administer chemotherapy treatments. By the time his doctors realized the boy was not taking his medication, his condition progressed to leukemia.

LaBrie, who lived in Beverly and Salem, lost custody of the boy to his father, Eric Fraser. Jeremy died in hospice care in March 2009, at age 9. His father died in a motorcycle accident in 2010.

Prosecutors said yesterday that they do not expect anyone to make a victim impact statement on behalf of the boy before LaBrie is sentenced.

A defense lawyer asserted, and LaBrie took the stand to testify, that she was overwhelmed by caring for Jeremy, who was also autistic, nonverbal, and developmentally disabled. A single mother, LaBrie also suffered from depression, and said she could not bear seeing the pain the medications were causing her son.

Jury member Raymond Sims said yesterday that he and his fellow jurors deliberated thoroughly, but that they were bound by the law and properly reached their decision.

“We really hashed it through,’’ he said. “We did not want to find her guilty, I think we had great sympathy for the defendant. We tried to act in a way to consider that reasonable doubt, that uncertainty, but at the end of the day we didn’t feel we had it.’’

He added: “None of us went in there with an attitude that we wanted to convict her. We didn’t want to believe it happened. It was difficult to come to grips that it happened, and why it happened.’’

LaBrie’s attorney, Kevin James, said yesterday that the jury apparently did not understand the burden his client experienced in caring for an autistic son who developed cancer. He had also argued that social workers and doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Jeremy was treated, should have done more to make sure she was fit to care for her child and administer the medications.

“What we wanted to get across to the jury is the tremendous burden my client had to carry, as well as the fact that the support that should have been in place for her was not in place,’’ James said in an interview.

James said he asked for the sentencing to be postponed at least until Friday in part so that he could gather evidence of support his client has received from many people who never met her, but who understand the difficulties of raising a developmentally disabled child with cancer.

O’Keefe, LaBrie’s sister, said she understood jurors were required to follow the legal directives given to them, but that her sister never sought to hurt Jeremy.

“It’s too hard for them to know what my sister was going through at that time,’’ O’Keefe said, holding back tears. “I don’t think my sister had any intentions of hurting Jeremy, ever. I never will believe that in my life, never.’’

Prosecutors said they will not comment on the case until LaBrie is sentenced.

Legal analysts said yesterday that the case was the most unusual since prosecutors brought manslaughter charges two decades ago against a couple who refused to authorize surgery for their toddler, who was suffering from a treatable bowel condition. The couple, David and Ginger Twitchell, then of Hyde Park, were Christian Scientists and believed the boy could be healed by spiritual treatment. He died within several days after his diagnosis in 1986.

The state Supreme Judicial Court, in reviewing that case, determined in a landmark decision that parents have a legal duty to provide medical care for gravely ill children, regardless of religious faith.

Boston attorney J.W. Carney Jr., of Carney & Bassil, said LaBrie’s case was troubling in that she was portrayed as a mother who was overwhelmed. He said the case should have also focused on the failure of LaBrie’s doctors to intervene quicker, once it became obvious that she was not administering medications.

“It can be so overwhelming for a single parent to deal with a child who is autistic, nonverbal, and developmentally delayed,’’ he said. “It is cruel to add to that burden a diagnosis of cancer and a requirement that the mom administer medicine that will cause the child even more pain.’’

The attempted murder conviction carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Under state sentencing guidelines, LaBrie — who does not have a criminal record — could face up to 7 1/2 years in prison, according to legal analysts. That determination will be made by Judge Richard Welch, who could consider outside factors.

“A judge is authorized to go downward, with mitigating factors, or depart upward if there are aggravated factors,’’ Carney said.

Boston-based defense attorney Randy Gioia added, “I think there are mitigating factors and aggravating factors in this case. One of the aggravating factors is you have a vulnerable victim with a disability in this case. That is one of the factors the judge is going to take under consideration.’’

Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com; Ballou at bballou@globe.com.