Dedham -- A Superior Court judge yesterday granted the request of an Attleboro religious sect member to delay her murder trial, which had been scheduled to start Sept. 3.
Karen E. Robidoux, 26, will now be tried Jan. 6 on a charge of second-degree murder in the 1999 starvation death of her year-old son, Samuel.
Judge Elizabeth B. Donovan granted the delay to allow Robidoux's lawyer, Joseph F. Krowksi, of Brockton, to prepare a new defense in the case. Krowski said Robidoux intends to say the insular religious sect controlled her mind and she was powerless to feed her son solid food. Krowski said the strategy is a form of battered woman's syndrome defense, usually seen when an abused woman is charged with killing her domestic partner.
Robidoux's case seems destined to go to trial in January, as the two sides are far apart in plea negotiations. If convicted of second-degree murder, Robidoux would be sentenced to a mandatory life term, though she would be eligible for parole after 15 years.
Krowski said yesterday that he had rejected prosecutors' offers of a sentence of not less than 10 years and that he saw little to continue discussing.
Prosecutor Walter J. Shea said he had rejected Krowski's offer of a sentence of three to five years.
Shea yesterday half-heartedly objected to Robidoux's request for a delay in the start of the trial. He said that Robidoux, who has been in jail since being indicted in November 2000, could have raised the mind control defense anytime in the last 21 months and that she should not be allowed to bring things to a halt two weeks before the trial because she had changed her mind.
But, Shea acknowledged, if Robidoux were to be convicted at a trial starting in September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court would probably overturn that conviction. Shea said the high court would probably argue there would have been no harm in the delay.
Meanwhile yesterday, the mystery remained as to why Robidoux's codefendant, G. Michelle Mingo, remains in jail.
According to court testimony, Mingo told other sect members she had received a vision from God that Karen should atone for vanity in her appearance by only breastfeeding Samuel, even though the boy had begun eating solid food. By that time, Robidoux was pregnant again and unable to produce enough milk to sustain the boy. He starved to death after 51 days of breastfeeding only.
Mingo has been charged with being an accessory to an assault on the boy. Under sentencing guidelines, if she had pleaded guilty at the outset, Mingo would have been placed on probation. She has been in jail awaiting trial almost two years.
Shea said yesterday he has offered her what seems like a deal no defendant could pass up: If she pleads guilty, she goes free.
Mingo's lawyer, public defender Alan Zwirblis, yesterday declined to discuss his client's intentions. "We haven't decided anything," he said after the hearing.
But in court, he offered a tantalizing foreshadow: He told Judge Donovan that Mingo might want to come into court before Oct. 28, the next status date scheduled in Robidoux's case.
Krowski yesterday acknowledged Robidoux is embarking on a risky defense strategy, one in which she essentially admits what the prosecution is charging, but absolves her of responsibility if jurors buy the notion the sect controlled her actions.
"If there's a log bridge across two cliffs, there's an inherent risk, but you have to cross it," Krowski said. "There are people who convince other people to do things other people can't conceive of. It can happen to any of us."
"I can't predict if a jury's going to find any sympathy at all in the defense," Krowski said, but added the mind-control theory is the "truth" of what happened to Robidoux. "There is no way she would let her own child down. She was as powerless as could be."
Krowski said the sect strictly controlled its members, especially the women.
Prosecutor Shea disputed that.
"I don't believe the group is as controlling as has been suggested," Shea said. "She has made decisions all along that clearly indicate she has control." As an example, he said, when the case first broke in Attleboro Juvenile Court in 1999, Robidoux accepted a lawyer and pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights while other sect members went to jail for refusing to cooperate with the court or a grand jury investigating Samuel's death.
"When it's convenient for her to say she's a controlled cult member, she's a controlled cult member," said Shea. "When it's convenient to take a different path to help herself out, she'll do that."
Two of Robidoux's sisters, Diana Daneau and Renee Horton, and her sister-in-law, Nicole Kidson, were in court yesterday to support Robidoux, who did not attend.
As they left the courthouse, one of the women said hopefully to Krowski: "It's a start."