Taunton -- In a dark blue suit, her dark hair dripping over her shoulders, Karen E. Robidoux listened intently as she was alternately described as a heartless mother who willingly let her 11-month-old son waste away and as a compliant sect member unable to break free from the husband and religious sect that told her to withhold food from her dying baby, Samuel.
"For 51 days, this woman, his mother, knew -- knew -- that what was happening to her child was causing him to be ill, to lose weight, to suffer, and at the conclusion of 51 days -- to die," Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Walter Shea told jurors in the opening statement in Robidoux's murder trial. "He did not die as a street person. He did not die in a family unable to provide for him.
He died in a family that refused to provide."
Robidoux is charged with second-degree murder for the 1999 death of her son, whose body was buried in Baxter State Park in Maine. Her husband, Jacques, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 for his role in their son's death. Both were members of an Attleboro religious sect led by Jacques's father, Roland.
Joseph Krowski, Karen Robidoux's lawyer, told the jury that the petite woman was trapped inside a male-dominated family, ruled by Jacques and Roland, that had taken Christian thinking and twisted it into a bizarre, weird form.
"This is not the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch," Krowski said. "This is a bizarre, misbegotten group."
Krowski said Jacques and Roland ordered Karen to only breast-feed her son, even though she was pregnant and her breasts were slowly losing the ability to provide milk. He said Karen Robidoux faithfully kept to the regular feeding schedule her elders ordered -- 20 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day -- even as her ravenous son painfully chewed her nipples in a frantic effort to be fed.
"Karen Robidoux tried everything she could," Krowski said. "She fed that child."
The group called themselves The Body and believed they were in direct contact with God, who would send "leadings" or "teachings" to guide them away from Satan's influence. One "leading" came from Michelle Mingo, Jacques Robidoux's sister, that Samuel should be breast-fed only, to punish Karen Robidioux for focusing on her appearance.
Yesterday, the first prosecution witness was Dennis Mingo, Michelle's former husband, who was the first person to alert law enforcement that something was awry in the sect built around three families -- the Robidouxs, the Corneaus, and Karen Robidoux's own family, the Daneaus.
Mingo was for many years a willing participant in the group, but he said he lost faith in his leaders after they declared in the late 1990s that all books were the works of man, and as such, must be considered Satan's work.
Mingo left the group, and left his five children with their mother. But in 1999 he began investigating rumors that another couple in the sect, Daniel and Rebecca Corneau, had had a baby that no one had ever seen.
While visiting his Seekonk home, Mingo found notes chronicling the slow death of Samuel Robidoux and Karen Robidoux's alleged role in it. Although the notes were introduced in the trial yesterday, the jury has not yet heard their contents.
Mingo told Shea about the sometimes-bizarre activity the group engaged in, including a 1998 trip to Maine, prompted by Jacques Robidoux's decision that God had told him to leave all their earthly possessions behind so they could partake of a "feast" that God would provide.
Mingo said a caravan of cars carrying 20 adults and 20 children drove into northern Maine without money, food, or drink.
The journey ended hours later, during which no one had food, including the children, and after two cars ran out of gas. Mingo said Jacques Robidoux put his hands on a car with an empty gas tank, expecting God to fill it with gasoline. Mingo said his mother found him in Maine, gave food to his children, and then drove him back to Massachusetts.
Under cross-examination by Krowski, Mingo testified that he had first turned his back on his mother, because Jacques and Roland told him she was acting on behalf of Satan.
Mingo said that even though about five years have passed since he was an active member of the group, he still sometimes fears that in leaving the sect, "I have turned my back on God."
Karen Robidoux was indicted for second-degree murder in 2000 but was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial until last fall. She is free on $100,000 cash bail.
Yesterday, as she walked into the courthouse, someone called her a "murderer," according to Patti Loura, a registered nurse who befriended Karen Robidoux while she was in Taunton State Hospital. In response, Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Donovan, who is presiding over the trial, barred anyone from speaking to Robidoux near the courthouse.
Also yesterday, David Corneau agreed to testify. In 1999, his wife, Rebecca, had a stillborn son, who was found buried in Maine with Samuel Robidoux. Corneau, who has been granted immunity from prosecution, had been arrested as a material witness Wednesday, when he failed to appear in court.
His lawyer, J. W. Carney Jr., told Donovan that his client considered the summons an "invitation," not an order, that he appear. Carney said Corneau will be in court when needed.