Jury finds woman not guilty of aggravated child abuse

Becky Campbell • Feb 23, 2012 at 10:30 PM

A Washington County trial jury acquitted a Virginia woman who was accused of smothering a child in her care more than seven years ago.

Melony Dawn Roberts, 32, of Cedar Bluff, Va., was charged with aggravated child abuse for an incident at the Johnson City Medical Center Sept. 24, 2004.

State prosecutors say Roberts was at the hospital with the child because the baby was having unexplained “medical events” that caused her to stop breathing, turn blue and go limp.

After deliberating for about three hours, the jury announced the “not guilty” verdict.

Prior to deliberations, attorneys in the case presented closing arguments to “connect the dots,” as one lawyer put it.

Jurors heard two days of testimony from the baby’s attending physician at the hospital, lay witnesses and other medical experts. It was that attending physician, Dr. Karen Schetzina, who reported the suspected child abuse in February 2005.

That’s when Schetzina watched a video taken in September 2004, she testified she became concerned and suspected Roberts had suffocated the child.

“It was chilling for me to watch,” Schetzina testified on Tuesday.

Assistant District Attorney Todd Hull reminded jurors of that statement during his part of closing arguments.

Hull also laid out a timeline of the child’s medical history, hospitalizations, events where she lost consciousness, tests and diagnoses.

One thing all the doctors agreed on was that the baby — who is now 8 years old and living with another family and different first name — suffered from apnea-induced GERD, or acid reflux.

At one point, the baby was on a medication to control the problem, but it wasn’t clear if he was still taking it in September when the incident happened at JCMC.

But Schetzina went further in her assessment after watching the video, saying that she suspected Roberts smothered the baby after picking up the child and walking out of the camera’s range.

Jurors saw that video at least four times during the state’s closing arguments.

During defense attorney James Bell’s closings, he criticized prosecutors for evidence they didn’t present — particularly testimony from other doctors who treated the baby and the police investigator who handled the case.

“Dr. Schetzina said Dr. Dingler asked her if she considered suffocation, but it didn’t end up in his report. Why didn’t they bring him in?” Bell asked the jury.

And he said if the state was depending on the fact that Roberts told a lie at one point in her life about being pregnant with triplets, “God help us all.”

Bell said for the jury to speculate or assume anything in the case is wrong and a “greasy paw” on the scale of justice.

The case balanced on the video, which the jury asked to see during deliberations. Shortly after that viewing, the panel returned with its verdict.

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