Taunton -- Walter Shea told the jury a "stabbing or a bullet to the head" would have been kinder. But little Samuel Robidoux wasted away. One day without solid food. Then the next day. Then another. Dead after 51 days of starvation, the infant was placed forever in a wood box.
His mother, Karen E. Robidoux, and the rest of those who belonged to an insular Attleboro religious sect did nothing, Shea, a Bristol County assistant district attorney, said in opening arguments before the 12 jurors and 4 alternates on the first day of Robidoux's murder trial.
"The bones began to protrude from under his skin," Shea said.
He pointed at Robidoux. "From day one, this woman, his mother, knew -- knew -- that what was happening to this child was causing him to lose weight, to suffer and, at the conclusion of 51 days, die," Shea said.
But in his opening statement, defense lawyer Joseph F. Krowski said there were other forces at work, something that wielded extraordinary power over Robidoux: sect founder Roland Robidoux, his wife, Georgette, and his son, Jacques Robidoux. Krowski seized on testimony yesterday by former sect member Dennis Mingo -- who first revealed the sect's ways -- that he, too, often felt powerless against the will of sect leaders.
This was no Ozzie and Harriet family, Krowski told the jury, adding that "Karen Robidoux was a tragic part of that family" from a young age.
"She was as a much a victim here as Samuel," Krowski said.
The jury heard the opening arguments yesterday and testimony from the former sect member, as it weighs whether Robidoux committed murder by depriving her infant son of solid food. The 11-month-old boy died in 1999 after subsisting on a 51-day diet of only breast milk -- the result of a vision by sect member G. Michelle Mingo that said Robidoux needed to atone for vanity in her appearance.
If convicted on the second-degree-murder charge, Robidoux faces life in prison. Jacques Robidoux, her husband, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in the boy's death.
Dennis Mingo said he is ashamed of it all now: the hard wooden paddles to spank sect children; the car caravan to Maine in which 20 children starved for 60 hours; the sect men who placed their hands on an out-of-gas car on the trip, believing God would provide.
Mingo said he had often gone along with the sect leaders' wishes, and sometimes even believed in them, because he had married into the Attleboro sect.
Over the years, Mingo was in and out as a sect member, he said. He knew that to disagree with a sect vision meant answering to its rigid founder, Roland Robidoux, or his son. He said to disagree was to go against his wife at the time, G. Michelle Mingo, a daughter of Roland Robidoux who sometimes wore a spanking paddle in a rope necklace. To disagree was to be shunned by the sect, to be kept away from his wife and children, he said.
Some people had tried to disagree with Roland Robidoux.
"Eventually, they would give in. He was the leader," Mingo testified during Krowski's cross examination yesterday.
In or out of the sect, the beliefs and the believers were all around him. "This was being pounded into me," he said.
Several times after he left the sect, Mingo testified, he attempted to see his family and children, but one visit to the house was critical. Inside, he found notes that detailed the worsening condition of Samuel Robidoux -- notes he eventually gave to the police.
Mingo said that today, he rarely spanks his children, who are in his custody -- and not with a paddle. When he was in the sect, he went along with it to appease sect leaders.
"And you regret that?" Krowski asked.
"Very much," Mingo said. "It's the thing that I'm most ashamed of as a person."
"Roland had a saying," he said. "All he needed was two weeks and a paddle and he would correct a problem with a child."