Mother Convicted | Globe Editorial

Sympathy and a stiff sentence

April 14, 2011

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THE FACTS in the sad case of Kristen LaBrie, convicted on Tuesday of withholding lifesaving chemotherapy from her autistic, developmentally disabled son, seem clear. She was depressed and overwhelmed by caring for a special needs child as a single mother; when, at age 7, he developed a treatable form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, she failed to give him drugs that doctors considered lifesaving. The Essex County jury was fully justified in finding her guilty of charges including attempted murder — but also in feeling, as jurors related in subsequent interviews, some sympathy for her situation.

Now comes the hard part: Balancing those conflicting emotions in determining LaBrie’s sentence. The attempted murder conviction carries a 20-year maximum, with a likely prison term of seven and a half years. Judge Richard Welch can and should consider outside factors in determining the sentence. LaBrie should be given extensive prison time, but something less than the maximum would be justified by the unusual circumstances of the case.

LaBrie’s son Jeremy, who died in 2009, was almost totally dependent on his mother’s care. That suggests the harshest possible sentence. But the evidence presented at trial suggests that LaBrie wasn’t merely a cold, calculating person. Parents of children with serious disabilities have a wearying responsibility; those with children facing grueling cancer treatments have intense emotional pressures. A single mother with a child confronting both problems is under a unique strain.

Still, LaBrie’s crime would be unthinkable to most parents, including those whose children have severe disabilities and potentially fatal illnesses. Massachusetts courts have rightly determined that parents have a legal duty to provide medical care to their gravely ill children. This standard was established against a couple whose religious faith led them to refuse lifesaving surgery on their toddler back in the ’80s, and it was imposed again against LaBrie, whose defense was her own rattled condition.

Jeremy Fraser, LaBrie’s son, never spoke a word in his life. While his mother deserves a measure of understanding, Judge Richard Welch should speak for the boy in delivering the sentence.