|Court officer Dave Folan took Michael Riley into custody yesterday in Plymouth Superior Court after he was found guilty of first-degree murder in the prescription drug death of his daughter. (Greg Derr/Associated Press/Pool)|
Father guilty in girl’s fatal drugging
Gets life in prison for 1st-degree murder
BROCKTON — Capping one of the most unusual child abuse cases in Massachusetts history, a South Shore father was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder for killing his 4-year-old daughter with an overdose of a psychotropic drug, which he and his wife had nicknamed “happy medicine’’ and routinely dispensed to their three children to manage their day-to-day behavior.
Michael Riley, 37, who showed little emotion when the guilty verdict was read, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Riley’s wife, 35-year-old Carolyn, had also faced first-degree murder charge, but last month, a jury convicted her of second-degree murder, which gives her the option of parole after 15 years.
It took the Plymouth County jury — which looked visibly drained as the verdict was read, with one woman weeping — eight hours to reach its verdict.
The case has drawn national attention to the use of psychotropic drugs in young children and the potential for indigent parents to abuse the federal disability system.
Prosecutors said Rebecca’s parents fabricated their children’s behavioral problems, making up reports of hallucinations and violent outbursts, in order to obtain drugs to sedate them and to help them qualify for government benefits for families with disabled children.
When Rebecca died on Dec. 13, 2006, she and her two older siblings, then 11 and 6, had each been diagnosed with bipolar and hyperactivity disorders and prescribed three potent psychiatric drugs by Dr. Kayoko Kifuji of Tufts Medical Center. Rebecca had been taking mood-altering drugs since age 2.
After the verdict, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said he plans to ask the Board of Registration of Medicine to reopen its investigation of Kifuji, who he has said turned a blind eye to the numerous signs that the parents were troubled and reckless in dispensing drugs.
“Dr. Kifuji is unfit to have a medical license,’’ he said. “If what Dr. Kifuji did in this case is the acceptable standard of care for children in Massachusetts, then there is something very wrong in this state.’’
Shortly after Rebecca died, Kifuji had entered into a voluntary agreement with the board to halt her clinical practice. But two years later, after a grand jury declined to indict her and the board completed its own inquiry, she was allowed to return to practice last fall. She is currently seeing patients at Tufts Medical Center.
Kifuji testified in both cases, but only after being granted immunity from prosecution.
Cruz said he plans to assemble the transcripts of her testimony, among other things, to present to the licensing board. That information, prosecutors said, showed negligence in how she assessed and followed patients, not just that she subscribes to the controversial belief — as do some other prominent psychiatrists — that toddlers can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For instance, Kifuji diagnosed at least two of the Riley children, while toddlers, with mental disorders after only a one-hour consultation, did not order appropriate blood work while they were on potent pills, and seemingly ignored input from preschool teachers and other clinicians who said the children seemed weak and overmedicated.
When the mother, who was in charge of giving out the drugs, admitted to Kifuji that she gave extra dosages to the children, the psychiatrist seemed extraordinarily tolerant — even sometimes saying the boosted amount was a good idea and the new norm going forward.
Russell Aims, spokesman for the Board of Registration of Medicine, said yesterday the panel will review any information that prosecutors submit.
“The board always reserves the right to reopen a complaint if new information comes to light,’’ he said.
The preschooler’s body, clad only in a pull-up diaper, was found lifeless on the floor next to her parents’ bed during the early-morning hours of Dec. 13, 2006. Prosecutors said the girl was given a lethal overdose of the sedating drug, clonidine, on a night when she kept crying out “Mommy!’’ while battling a respiratory illness.
In both trials, the father was described as a temperamental bully who frightened the children with profanity-laced verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse. The mother was depicted as eager to please the man who married her in 1994, just a few years after they graduated from Weymouth High School.
When Michael Riley wanted the children to quiet down and ordered pills be given to them, prosecutors said, Carolyn complied. She also stood by her husband when her oldest biological daughter, who she had with another man and was later adopted, accused Michael, during a visit at the Riley home, of showing her pornography and making sexual advances.
Michael and Carolyn never explicitly blamed each other during their trials, but rather portrayed themselves as jointly following the orders of Kifuji. They also contended that fast-acting pneumonia killed Rebecca, not psychotropic drugs.
But the convictions showed that jurors in both trials rejected those arguments, choosing instead the government’s contention that the pair maliciously killed the youngest of their three children. The jury in Carolyn Riley’s case struggled longer to reach a verdict, deliberating for 19 hours and ultimately agreeing to a lesser charge. Both parents, who are appealing their verdicts, chose not to take the stand.
The couple, which prosecutors depicted as more devoted to each other than to their children, will now be miles away from each other.
As their two oldest children go on with their lives in foster homes, Michael Riley, with his wrists in handcuffs and his ankles in chains, was taken yesterday to MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole.
His wife is about 15 miles away in the state prison for women in Framingham.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.