WORCESTER (CBS) — Disturbing details were revealed in court Tuesday as the trial began for a mother charged in the horrific deaths of her infant children in Blackstone.
Erika Murray is facing murder charges in the deaths of two of three babies found dead in her squalid home in September 2014. State Police discovered the bodies while performing a wellness check. They say the house was full of trash and dirty diapers and infested with insects and rodents.
One of the dead babies still had an umbilical cord attached.
Four living children, ranging from 5 months to 13 years old, were removed from the home, which was eventually torn down.
Murray has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Her lawyer says she is mentally ill.
During opening statements in Worcester Superior Court Tuesday, prosecutor Christopher Hodgens said witnesses and evidence will demonstrate that Murray created two different worlds for her seven children, one for the wanted and another for the unwanted.
Murray’s attorney, Keith Halpern, said his client’s mental illness played a part in her not realizing how bad the conditions in the house were and the nature of the risk those conditions created. Halpern also said two experts will testify that autism, not neglect, were behind the behavior exhibited by Murray’s two youngest children when they were discovered in 2014.
The first witness to take the stand, Murray’s former neighbor, Betsy Brown, described the condition of the outside of Murray’s house as “disheveled” and said there was a “disturbing odor” coming from the home. Brown said her son played with Murray’s son Nick, who was often “hungry” and “disheveled.”
She later became visibly upset and emotional on the stand, as she described finding two children, covered in feces, alone upstairs in Murray’s house. Brown described entering the home in August 2014, to help Murray’s son. She said the smell was “overcoming” and she “couldn’t see the floor” because there was “trash and stuff everywhere.”
“There was just a large amount of things, dirty diapers, and bottles with maggots and things like that. Just clothes and there was a child there on a mattress,” Brown testified.
She took cell phone video of the home and the conditions, after calling police. Those video clips and her 911 call were played in court Tuesday. Brown could be heard describing the situation to police and telling them she didn’t know what to do.
Blackstone Police Officer Michael Pavone came to the home after Brown called 911. Pavone testified that when he entered Murray’s house he found a baby covered in human feces, trash scattered and soiled baby diapers.
Pavone described how he found a toddler in a room with trash strewn on the floor.
“He was basically covered in human feces. He had feces on his face and hands. His diaper was soiled,” the officer testified.
Pavone also talked about entering a room where the door was stuck shut because there was a pile of trash “a couple of feet tall.” He noted the room also had human feces on the wall and maggots all over.
He said Murray came home about a half-hour later and when he asked where she was all day, Murray told him she had things to do. Pavone told her that was unacceptable and he said she agreed.
On cross-examination, Halpern asked the officer about a conversation he overheard between Murray and DCF investigators. Pavone said DCF told her they would take her children away and she was concerned that her cat got out. “She had no reaction. Just a blank stare,” Pavone said.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Hodgens said, “Erika Murray is a mother of 7 children but 5 of those 7 children were kept in absolute secrecy from the world.”
Blackstone Police officer Anthony Lungarini and acting police chief Gregory Gilmore also testified Tuesday afternoon. Both described similar “deplorable” conditions in Murray’s house before court recessed for the day.
There was no jury selection because Murray’s legal team has chosen a bench trial so Judge Janet Kenton-Walker will decide the case. ““The bizarre and disturbing facts made it very difficult for anyone dealing with this case to deal with it objectively,” explained defense attorney Keith Halpern.
“There’s no evidence of cause of death. There’s no evidence that Miss. Murray knew that there was any health crisis that needed medical attention,” said Halpern, arguing the three babies could have been stillborn.
The Worcester County District Attorney’s Office expects the trial to last about two weeks.