Defence counsel for a woman whose two-year-old daughter died after ingesting methadone have told a jury that her prosecution for child neglect is “merciless”.
Two-year-old Heidi Douglas died in April 2016, three days after she had been admitted to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin. A post-mortem report concluded she had suffered acute brain inflammation, “most likely” caused by having ingested methadone, resulting in her death.
Her mother, Sadie Douglas (39) of Rathsallagh Drive, Shankill, Co Dublin, has pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to wilful neglect of her child leading to her death on dates between April 13th and 14th, 2016.
Ms Douglas’ partner, Christopher O’Reilly, of the same address, pleaded guilty last July to the same charge.
The trial has heard that O’Reilly was a recovering heroin addict and was taking daily doses of methadone, a heroin substitute, obtained on weekly prescription from a local chemist. A cup with traces of methadone in it was found in the house on the day in question.
The court has heard the couple’s older daughter, four-year-old Sophie, died tragically just two months earlier in February 2016 from a brain haemorrhage arising out of a birth condition.
The night before Heidi's death, her parents stayed up much of the night looking at photographs of their deceased daughter, the court heard. Ms Douglas said Heidi slept in until 10.30 that morning before going downstairs with her six-year-old brother.
The children were up and downstairs and watching TV before Heidi napped again, the court heard. She was found unresponsive around 3.30pm.
Giving the prosecution closing speech on Tuesday, Fionnuala O'Sullivan BL told the jury that this was a tragic case and a very difficult case for everyone in court to deal with.
Set emotions aside
She said it might be easy to feel “anger, perhaps disgust, frustration” at Heidi's death, but she said the jury must set emotions aside and deal with the case coldly and clinically.
The prosecution said this was not a case about a family who did not love their child. “Sadie Douglas loved her children. She loved Heidi, that is not in dispute here,” Ms O'Sullivan said. “She was distraught and she clearly still is.”
Prosecution counsel said this was a case in which Heidi died effectively from ingesting methadone in her home at a time when Ms Douglas had the care of her daughter. “The question is whether we have proved that Sadie Douglas wilfully neglected Heidi on those days.”
Ms O'Sullivan said the court was dealing with a child who was only two years and eight months old – a toddler. She said it was normal to have momentary lapses when minding small children. “It can be overwhelming, exhausting,” she said.
But this was not a momentary lapse, the jury was told. “This is a case where a young child is living in a house where methadone is kept and consumed and bottles are all around with dribbles in them,” Ms O'Sullivan said. Ms Douglas was aware of this, counsel said.
After Heidi was discovered in an unconscious state and an ambulance was called, it is the prosecution case that Ms Douglas misled paramedics in relation to there being methadone in the house.
“Sadie Douglas did not tell paramedics about the possibility of methadone in the house,” Ms O'Sullivan said. Ms Douglas “actively misled paramedics” and when asked if Heidi could have taken anything, she replied: “No”, the court heard.
'Woman of few advantages'
Giving his closing speech to the jury, Conor Devally SC, defending, said that while no part of the garda investigation could be faulted, “I have to say there is something merciless in this prosecution”.
He said Ms Douglas was “a woman of few advantages”. He said she did not have a privileged background and her partner was on methadone to control his heroin addiction.
Defence counsel told the jury that Ms Douglas voluntarily told paramedics in the ambulance that her partner was on methadone. He said that when Ms Douglas said there wasn't any methadone in the house that Thursday morning, she was saying this because O'Reilly finished it every Wednesday.
The court has heard that Christopher O'Reilly went to the chemist every Thursday, took his daily dose in the chemist and then brought the rest of the weekly dose home.
Mr Devally said Ms Douglas's words to the paramedic were not written down and occurred in an “unruly scene” in a moving ambulance in which about three paramedics were working on her unconscious child.
A garda wrote down a statement from Ms Douglas an hour later in which she gave this information about O'Reilly's methadone use and weekly collection, the jury was told.
Mr Devally said that if leaving a child of two years and eight months to be accompanied downstairs by her six-year-old brother was wilful neglect, then “none of us is guiltless of that”.
He told the jury that the post-mortem examination found Heidi was a healthy and well-nourished child, with good dental hygiene. “This is not a neglected child,” he said, adding that the prosecution does not say this was a pattern of on-going behaviour.
This was a “misplaced trial”, Mr Devally said in his final words to the jury.
“This is a tragedy. It's a tragedy that won't go away for her, regardless of your serious deliberations. But enough is enough. At this point, put your heads together, do your duty and acquit my client.”
Judge Orla Crowe delivered her charge to the jury, with deliberations expected to start on Wednesday.