Jury acquits Robidoux of murdering baby

An Attleboro mother charged with second-degree murder for starving her baby to death on the orders of her religious sect was acquitted yesterday of murder but convicted of assault and battery, a misdemeanor, which allowed her to walk out of Bristol Superior Court a free woman. The verdict, reached after seven hours of deliberation over two days, infuriated Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr., who said that Karen E. Robidoux's actions could not be excused.

Robidoux, who was held for 35 months awaiting trial, much of that in Taunton State Hospital because she was deemed incompetent to stand trial, said she was happy that things "worked out."

"I'm grateful that people I didn't even know heard my story and everything worked out," said Robidoux, flanked by her defense lawyer, Joseph Krowski, who contended she was psychologically battered and under the control of the insular religious sect led by her husband and father-in-law. "I'm just glad the nightmare door is shut."

The verdict angered Walsh, whose office had successfully prosecuted Robidoux's husband, Jacques, for first-degree murder in the starvation death of their son, Samuel, who died three days short of his first birthday in April 1999 after being denied solid food for 51 days.

In a strongly worded statement, Walsh said the verdict was contradictory, in that it found Robidoux guilty of assault and battery, but not of the death that resulted from her actions.

"This much is certain: Samuel was systematically starved to death before his first birthday by his father and his mother," the statement said. "There is a time to temper justice with mercy. In my view, this wasn't one of them. Individuals are responsible not only to God. Parents have legal responsibilities; feeding your kids is one of them. People have to stop making excuses. Never before in 14 years as district attorney have I been this disturbed by a verdict."

Karen Robidoux was part of a tiny sect called The Body, which was based in Attleboro and comprised three interrelated families. The group shunned modern medicine and viewed the government and the courts as "Satanic systems."

The group also believed that its members would receive direct messages from God, and it was the prophecy of one member -- Robidoux's sister-in-law Michelle Mingo -- that led to Samuel's death by starvation.

Mingo said that God was unhappy with Robidoux for being vain and said she could only breast feed Samuel, who had begun eating solid food. Robidoux, who was pregnant at the time, was producing little milk. Samuel died 51 days later of starvation.

Karen Robidoux, 28, who faced life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 15 years if convicted of second-degree murder, walked out of the courthouse after she was sentenced to the time she had served awaiting trial by Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Donovan. The maximum sentence for assault and battery is 2 1/2 years.

The jury of eight men and four women heard testimony from former sect members about Robidoux's life inside the group, where she was viewed as a "baby machine" and the "goat" of the sect's leaders, including her husband.

In a telephone interview, jury foreman Robert Bartolome said the jury searched for proof from prosecutors that Karen Robidoux intended to act jointly with her husband to murder Samuel but could not find it. "Obviously, she was present, but we determined her intent was not to kill the baby," said Bartolome. "If the prosecutor did not bring this case as a joint venture, the results may have been different. I am satisified by the verdict. I feel that she had to bear some responsibility."

Prosecution witnesses testified that Karen Robidoux breast-fed her son for 20 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, and that she once tried to feed him solid food but the starving infant refused to eat.

In a handwritten account of Samuel Robidoux's death written by his father, Jacques, Karen Robidoux is described as anxious about the fate of her son, but ultimately supportive of the decision not to feed him solid food.

Though she was painted by Krowski during the trial as an isolated, friendless victim of a male-dominated cult, Robidoux had more than 15 relatives and supporters in court yesterday as the verdict came in, including her older sister, Renee Horton, who testified as a prosecution witness. Robidoux was living with Horton and her husband, Daniel, in their Attleboro home when Samuel starved to death.

"There were two victims here, Karen and Samuel," said Horton, who, along with her husband, was given immunity from prosecution and did not lose custody of their children, as have other sect members, including Robidoux. "I think that justice was done."

Karen Robidoux has been free on $100,000 cash bail since last fall and has been living in a Lakeville facility for former members of cults that is operated by Robert Pardon. He was tapped by a juvenile court judge to help decide what authorities should do to protect the children of Body members.

Karen Robidoux had two children while she was a teenager and three more, including Samuel, with Jacques. Her oldest children are living with their fathers, while the two younger children are living with adoptive families in the West, according to Pardon.

Sect members buried Samuel Robidoux and another child of sect members, who was stillborn, in crude wooden coffins in Baxter State Park in Maine, where the remains were dug up by State Police in 2000.

Krowski said he spent sleepless nights debating whether he made the right choice last year when he refused a plea bargain that would have sent Robidoux to prison for 10 years. He finally concluded that a jury would acquit her of murder if they learned of her life. "Karen's story got told," he said.