Saturday July 13, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The convictions of a Brattleboro woman on charges of child cruelty and disorderly conduct are "legally sound and supported by the evidence," the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled.

The court upheld last year's convictions of Michele Irene Amsden, including the allegation that she exposed her 4-year-old son to "dangerous and unsanitary conditions" during a drunken incident under a bridge in Brattleboro in 2010.

Amsden had appealed her convictions from Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, arguing in part that there was not enough evidence to show that the bridge environment was dangerously unhealthy.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

"The trial court found that the location under the bridge was inherently dangerous because it contained, among other hazards, broken glass and feces and an easily accessible brook," the Supreme Court ruling says.

"The threat to the child's health was sufficiently concrete. The risk, which might include everything from lacerations to infection to drowning, also was sufficiently severe," Chief Justice Paul Reiber wrote. "We have no difficulty agreeing with the trial court's conclusion that defendant endangered the child by bringing him to this dangerous place and then ignoring him."

Brattleboro police in September 2010 arrested Amsden when they responded to the Elm Street bridge to check on the welfare of a 4-year-old child.

That encounter is detailed in the Supreme Court decision:

"Under the bridge, police discovered defendant engaged in an apparent sexual act with a man while defendant's son was a few feet away. At trial, one of the officers described the area, which was adjacent to a brook, as ‘littered with trash, glass, urine (and) feces," court documents say.

"The child, who was standing 10 feet from the brook beneath the bridge, was barefoot and wore only soiled shorts. Consistent with the officers' testimony, the trial court found that that there was no impediment of any sort between the child and the brook."

The boy walked about 20 feet toward police, and authorities said Amsden apparently did not notice his absence.

"The (Superior Court) judge found that, only when the officers directly addressed defendant, telling her to put her shorts on, did she realize that her son had moved," the Supreme Court decision says. "While speaking with the officers, defendant was unsteady, could not maintain her balance, and slurred her words incoherently. In response to the officers' request, defendant tried unsuccessfully to put shoes on the child and then instead directed him to a filthy sleeping bag and pillow to go to sleep."

Efforts to remove the boy and Amsden from that environment led to a struggle during which she screamed, threw herself to the ground and argued with police, authorities said. She also hit her head.

Police took Amsden to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital's emergency room, where she initially refused to leave the cruiser and then was transferred to a "safe room" designed to keep patients from hurting themselves.

"Defendant repeatedly tried to leave the room and was eventually handcuffed to the bed," court papers say. "She banged the bed against the wall so much that it had to be moved."

Amsden was convicted of child cruelty related to her son's presence under the bridge and of disorderly conduct for her actions at the hospital.

On the disorderly conduct count, Amsden's appeal contended that her alleged actions "were not voluntary because police forcibly removed her from a location where her intoxication presented no risk of public inconvenience or annoyance and placed her in the hospital where her conduct was allegedly disruptive."

The higher court didn't buy that argument.

"While defendant might have preferred to remain under the bridge or elsewhere, making her presence in the hospital and later in jail involuntary, there is no indication that the behavior alleged to violate the disorderly conduct statute was anything other than voluntary," Reiber wrote.

The Supreme Court also found that, overall, Amsden's conduct "is sufficient to support the trial court's conclusion that defendant engaged in criminally tumultuous behavior."

In reference to the child-cruelty charge, Amsden's appeal had said there was "merely a speculative risk of harm" at the bridge on the night of her arrest.

But the Supreme Court noted the lower court's observation that "the conditions were apparent and obvious to anyone."

"There is no suggestion that defendant accidentally or thoughtlessly took her son to an area she knew to be dangerous," the court's ruling says. "The trial court could reasonably conclude on the basis of the evidence that defendant willfully caused her son to be neglected in a manner to endanger his health."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.