Delaying the trial -- now scheduled for Sept. 3 -- would give Karen E. Robidoux's lawyer more time to prepare a battered woman's syndrome defense.
The Attleboro religious sect member charged with starving her year-old son to death plans to raise a battered woman's syndrome defense, arguing the sect controlled her mind and she was powerless to disobey orders not to feed the boy.
The strategy came to light in a request by Karen E. Robidoux, 26, to delay the start of her trial, now set for Sept. 3, to give her lawyer time to prepare her defense. Her lawyer, Joseph F. Krowski, of Brockton, Mass., is expected to argue that request in Superior Court this morning.
"I have determined that a defense regarding Ms. Robidoux's ability to exercise her own free will and judgment during the time period in question needs to be pursued," Krowski wrote in court papers seeking the delay. "It is apparent, based upon my investigation, that undue influence was exercised on her by members of her family which affected her decision-making process."
"Every time she moved, they slapped a Bible in front of her," Krowski said in a telephone interview yesterday. "She was powerless at that point psychologically to do anything. It's the true picture of what happened here."
Krowski acknowledged that Karen Robidoux was never assaulted physically, but said that it is not needed for someone to develop battered woman's syndrome. "There was the psychological abuse that God would give you a good pounding if you didn't do what the elder said."
He said the entire sect focused its attentions on forcing Karen Robidoux to withhold solid food from her son, Samuel, and only breastfeed him. "Here is a woman who bore the onslaught of leadings and teachings from Jacques Robidoux, Roland Robidoux and Michelle Mingo," Krowski said.
Jacques Robidoux, 29, is Karen Robidoux's husband. He and his father, J. Roland Robidoux, 62, are the elders, or leaders, of the sect. G. Michelle Mingo, 37, Jacques Robidoux's sister, is an influential member of the sect. She told members she had received a vision from God directing Karen Robidoux to stop feeding Samuel in order to atone for her vanity. Mingo is awaiting trial on a charge of being an accessory to an assault on the boy.
Jacques Robidoux was convicted in June of first-degree murder and was automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Krowski said Jacques Robidoux's conviction opened the door for a mind-control and battered woman's syndrome defense for Karen Robidoux.
"After Jacques's verdict, it was a brand-new case," said the lawyer. "At that trial, the theme of the prosecution's cross-examination of Jacques was that he was coercive."
Krowski, the third lawyer to represent Karen Robidoux since she was indicted on a charge of second-degree murder in November 2000, said his client had rejected a "mind-control, brainwashing" defense until her husband was convicted.
Robidoux's change of heart regarding a defense blaming her son's death on coercion from other sect members raises the question of whether she has left the group. "I'm trying to break her away," Krowski said.
Krowski estimated he needs until November at the earliest to prepare for the case, including arranging for expert witnesses to review evidence and ready testimony that will teach jurors about how mind-control groups work. Krowski said yesterday that the Rev. Robert Pardon, a cult expert who played a key role in sect members losing their children in Juvenile Court, will testify in Karen Robidoux's behalf. Pardon did not return a telephone message left by The Providence Journal yesterday.
Krowski said Robidoux cannot get a fair trial if he is not allowed adequate time to prepare. "I will have a viable, meritorious defense. I just can't have it in two weeks," Krowski said. "I want a fair trial, not an efficient trial."
But the judge presiding over the case, Elizabeth B. Donovan, is known for conducting efficient trials. When Jacques Robidoux was tried in June, Donovan ignored an order from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to halt jury selection while the high court considered appeals from several news organizations that had been barred from covering jury selection. On the Superior Court's Web site, Donovan gives advice to lawyers trying cases before her: "Schedule your witnesses so the case flows smoothly without down time."
Today's hearing on Robidoux's request for a delay is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. in Donovan's courtroom at Dedham Superior Court.