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Defense challenge confession of mom charged in sons’ deaths

January 10, 2019
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Defendant Brittany Pilkington, left, listens during an evidentiary hearing on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 at the Logan County Courthouse in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Pilkington is charged with three counts of murder after allegedly suffocating her three sons, Niall, 3 months, Gavin, 4, and Noah, 3 months, over a 16-month period in 2014 and 2015. Pilkington’s defense team argued that her nine-hour confession wasn't voluntary and that she lacked the ability to understand her rights. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio (AP) — The woman sat emotionless, never once glancing at the images as photos from the autopsies of the three young sons she is accused of killing flashed on a giant screen.

She didn’t look when doctors pointed out the bruises on the bodies, or when they discussed the mark on the nose of one son that authorities said was probably caused when his mother pinched off the child’s airway. She didn’t wipe away tears; she didn’t drop her head.

Brittany Pilkington, 26, just sat and looked ahead as her boys were discussed in the coldest of clinical terms.

But her reactions — or lack of them — and an inability to process information because of a lifetime of her own trauma and abuse were at the heart of a two-day hearing in Logan County Common Pleas Court this week in her case, which has lingered without resolution for almost 3½ years.

Pilkington, 26, has been in the Logan County Jail since just hours after her third son died in August 2015. She is charged with aggravated murder, accused of smothering her three boys in her family’s Bellefontaine home over 13 months: 3-month-old son, Niall, in July 2014; Gavin, 4, in April 2015; and infant Noah in August 2015. She faces the death penalty if convicted.

The first death had initially been unexplained; the second one was under investigation when the third occurred.

Her defense team argued this week that her nine-hour confession after Noah’s death wasn’t voluntary and that she lacked the ability to understand her rights. In addition, they are citing a law that says, in essence, that prosecutors must have some evidence outside of a confession to proceed with such a case — hence, testimony about the autopsies and injuries.

“The dynamics of her interrogation mirrored her lifetime of abuse,” defense attorney Kort Gatterdam said in his opening statement. “She had no defenses to fight back,” so she just confessed.

The issue of the confession has been settled once before: Judge Mark S. O’Connor, who is hearing the case by special assignment, ruled then that even though police were overly confrontational when questioning Pilkington, she gave her statement willingly.

But the judge agreed to reopen the issue after defense attorneys said they had uncovered new information about Pilkington’s background, including a diagnosis of lead poisoning when she was a child, something that two psychologists testified this week probably affected her cognitive abilities.

The detectives were cruel in their interrogation, and the statements that Pilkington gave about killing her children “were not made of her own free will,” said Howard D. Fradkin, a psychologist and sexual-trauma expert hired by the defense.

Neuropsychologist Jeffrey Madden, also hired by the defense, took it further: “It was a capitulation, not a confession.”

There also was testimony about how Pilkington had been sexually abused as a child and eventually became pregnant at 15 by Joseph Pilkington, who at the time was her mother’s boyfriend and 20 years older than Brittany.

When she was a child, he banged her head repeatedly against her bedpost, which might have caused brain damage, the defense argued.

Not only did those experts speak of how Pilkington’s “complex trauma” made her susceptible to suggestion from the investigators, but they also took aim at the tactics used by authorities in the videotaped interview.

A Bellefontaine police detective locked the door of the interrogation room when Pilkington was first questioned, forensic psychologist Barbra Bergman testified, something she said she hadn’t seen happen before.

“I was amazed,” Bergman said. “I don’t know how Brittany could have thought she was free to leave.”

Bergman, who was ordered by the court to offer what was considered an independent evaluation, said Pilkington is “very submissive, very compliant and not assertive.”

Logan County Prosecutor Eric Stewart and Dan Kasaris, who is assisting from the Ohio attorney general’s office, disagreed.

They pointed out that Pilkington did well in high school and even studied nursing after graduation.

They quizzed investigators from Logan County Children Services about their interactions with Pilkington, and those case workers said she always seemed to understand things explained to her, and they had seen her assert herself.

Pilkington confessed to authorities that she suffocated each boy with a blanket, and did so because Joseph Pilkington, whom she eventually married, paid more attention to them than to her and their daughter.

After each death, Joseph Pilkington came home from work and discovered the body. The first two deaths triggered questions, but authorities found no conclusive evidence of homicide. Children Services got involved, however, and after Noah was born in May 2015, he and his older sister were placed in foster care. Just a week before Noah died, a Logan County family court judge had ordered them returned to the home.

Attorneys from both sides have two weeks to file written arguments. O’Connor is expected to issue his decision later.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2ADT8kU

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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