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 13 and 14, 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.
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.
The trial has heard that Christopher O’Reilly’s DNA was found on a measuring cup containing a sticky residue of methadone, found on top of a chest of drawers in the master bedroom. The court heard that two other DNA profiles were also present on the cup, but at too low a level for adequate testing.
The court has heard evidence of a number of other methadone bottles which were found in the house. These bottles had childproof lids, the court heard.
Ms O'Sullivan queried why Ms Douglas was not concerned that Heidi, having apparently slept well the night before and until 10.30 that morning, was asleep again that afternoon.
The prosecution said there was a “complete failure by Ms Douglas to supervise Heidi that morning, to rouse her when she appeared to have been asleep all night and all through the morning and, crucially, a failure to provide important information in the ambulance.”
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.
Ms O'Sullivan said Ms Douglas gave varying accounts of what happened to Heidi that day. “It is very very difficult to piece together what actually happened,” Ms O'Sullivan said. “That is almost entirely due to different accounts being given by Sadie Douglas.”
In the ambulance, Ms Douglas “protects herself, protects Christopher, but sadly does not protect Heidi”, Ms O'Sullivan said.
“Tragically, all the evidence leads to the inevitable conclusion that Sadie Douglas wilfully neglected Heidi Douglas in a manner likely to cause injury to Heidi's health,” Ms O'Sullivan said.
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 Ms Douglas was a grieving mother, whose older daughter Sophie had died just weeks previously. There was “turmoil” overnight after fresh photos of Sophie were discovered on a previously missing phone and the couple stayed up much of the night looking at them.
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.
He said Ms Douglas was unaware of the presence of the methadone cup in the bedroom and as a result she did not expose her child to that cup.
O'Reilly did know about the cup and he has “fallen on his sword” as a result, because he knows he did something wrong, Mr Devally said. “Ms Douglas did not know.”
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.