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Roberts tells jury in abuse case she didn’t smother 9-month-old girl

Becky Campbell • Feb 22, 2012 at 10:45 PM

A Cedar Bluff, Va., woman on Wednesday tearfully told a jury in Jonesborough that she would never harm a child and she loved the girl she’s accused of smothering.

Melony Dawn Roberts, 32, is on trial for aggravated child abuse, an incident prosecutors say occurred Sept. 24, 2004, at Johnson City Medical Center.

The 9-month-old girl was there to determine what caused her to suddenly go limp and stop breathing. A state medical expert testified she believes Roberts suffocated the child, while defense experts told the jury the child has acid reflux-induced apnea.

Prosecutors are not presenting the case as a Munchausen syndrome by proxy — when a caregiver caused injury to a child to get attention for themselves — but it was apparently a theory documented in the baby’s medical chart.

Roberts and her husband, Benjamin, had custody of the girl after they got a call the child needed someone to take care of her because her birth parents were incarcerated.

The couple already had fostered several other children, including a boy named Kermit whom they eventually adopted.

Prosecutors put Dr. Karen Schetzina, a pediatric hospitalist for the East Tennessee State University’s pediatric department, who said she treated the baby during her stay at JCMC and was uneasy about the child’s unexplained events of not breathing. The Sept. 24 incident caused the baby’s brain waves to “flatline,” Schetzina said.

The doctor also testified that a woman staying with Roberts at the hospital told her the events always seemed to occur when she went to the cafeteria.

Schetzina said she attempted to contact Child Protective Services, but had the wrong number and didn’t follow through.

It wasn’t until February 2005 that she and Wayne St. John — the LPN who observed the baby by video the day she had the incident Roberts is on trial for — spoke about their concerns. She said St. John offered to let her watch the video, and when she did her concerns grew.

Another doctor on the pediatrics floor had already asked Schetzina if she thought the baby had been intentionally suffocated after he viewed the video, but when Schetzina saw it herself, she said she was more convinced.

During cross examination, defense attorney James Bell picked at Schetzina’s testimony and asked if the noises heard on the video when Roberts had the baby off-camera were consistent with an asthma attack.

Schetzina stuck to her opinion Roberts suffocated the child.

Just before lunch and after Schetzina testified, prosecutors rested their case. Bell made a motion for acquittal, but Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood denied the motion and the case proceeded.

Bell put on three lay witnesses, including Roberts’ husband, who testified they saw the baby have these medical events and stop breathing even when Roberts wasn’t holding her. Adrianne Osborne said she was holding the baby in church one time when the child stopped breathing. Roberts’ cousin by marriage, Amy Roberts, said she was holding the baby at her house when an incident occurred.

The defense’s other two witness were medical experts — well-paid, the state chose to show — who both testified the baby had GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly called acid reflux.

Dr. Steven Guertin, a pediatric physician from Michigan, testified the baby “clearly suffered from something real, not imagined,” and the events occurred with or without Roberts present. He said the child had acid reflux, which can cause the baby to stop breathing if the material gets into the lungs.

That would also cause asthmatic symptoms, he said.

Dr. Frank Berenson, a pediatric neurologist, testified the child’s life-threatening events and the baby’s EEG, or brain wave record, showed she experienced hypoxia, or lack of enough oxygen to breathe. Roberts herself was the last witness of the day.

During her testimony, Roberts recalled the incident from Sept. 24, 2004, and said “I have never, ever in my entire life harmed a child or baby.”

Her attorney asked her point blank if she tried to suffocate the baby.

“No,” Roberts said. “Those children were my heart and my soul.”

On cross examination, Assistant District Attorney General Janet Hardin asked Roberts about how forthcoming she was with doctors about the child’s condition. Roberts said she always tried to be detailed when asked about the baby’s problems.

Roberts said when she was forced to leave her child after the investigation began the following year, “a big part of me died that night. I had to leave my baby in a crib without anybody in there,” she said.

Hardin also questioned Roberts about her multiple miscarriages and asked if she told a doctor she was pregnant with triplets.

Roberts said she had not said that to a doctor, but Hardin pressed on until Roberts acknowledged she had lied to a medical professional about being pregnant with triplets.

Bell disregarded the incident on re-direct examination and again asked Roberts if she suffocated the baby. “No,” Roberts said.

Blackwood adjourned court after the defense rested. Jurors will hear closing arguments this morning and then begin deliberation.

If convicted of aggravated child abuse, Roberts faces 15 to 25 years in prison.

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