SALEM — It started out as a child endangerment case in district court, not unlike many of the misdemeanor criminal cases lawyer Kevin James had tried earlier in his career.
He agreed to represent Kristen LaBrie pro bono, he testified yesterday, because he knew her boyfriend at the time.
But when LaBrie’s 9-year-old autistic son, Jeremy, died of cancer — cancer that had been in remission before she began withholding his medications — she was indicted for attempted murder. James stayed with the case, even though he had never tried a criminal case in Superior Court before.
LaBrie was convicted and is serving an eight- to 10-year prison term at MCI Framingham.
Now, LaBrie’s new attorneys want a judge to grant the Salem woman a new trial, based in part on James’ “ineffective” work on the case. Prosecutors are opposing the motion and were put in the unusual position yesterday of defending the work of a lawyer with whom they had a somewhat tense relationship throughout the proceedings — including accusations that James hung up on prosecutor Kate MacDougall at one point.
During a hearing in Lawrence Superior Court yesterday, where a pale LaBrie sat taking notes, James defended his decision to pursue a so-called “diminished capacity” defense for LaBrie — a type of defense he had never handled before.
“I believe that was the only viable defense,” James testified during the hearing before Judge Richard Welch III. “The theory was that Ms. LaBrie had experienced diminished mental capacity as a result of the emotional trauma of caring for an 8-year-old child with cancer, coupled with the fact Ms. LaBrie had a minimal support group.”
LaBrie’s new attorney, Michelle Menken, has contended that James should have known the defense would fail, because he never addressed the damaging evidence against her, including a profanity-laden email sent to her ex-husband, Eric Fraser, Jeremy’s father, that could have been taken as a threat toward the child, and her statement to state social workers that she knew withholding Jeremy’s chemotherapy would be akin to “pushing him in front of a moving car.”