A lawyer for a Stayton woman accused of causing the death of her 2-year-old son says prosecutors warned that they would pursue harsher charges – which she now faces – if she declined to plead guilty and insisted on a trial.
Jessica Pearce was indicted eight months ago on a charge of second-degree manslaughter after her son Christopher died in a house fire. A trial date was never set.
Then earlier this month, a Marion County prosecutor convened a second grand jury that delivered an elevated charge of first-degree manslaughter. The Jan. 7 indictment also added two new felony counts of criminal mistreatment, alleging Pearce withheld necessary care from two other children months after her son died.
She will be arraigned Feb. 11 on the three new felony charges, as well as a misdemeanor count of second-degree child neglect that was part of the original indictment.
Pearce’s attorney, Salem public defender Sara Foroshani, said, “The state did tell us if we set the case for trial, they would go back to the grand jury to amend the indictment.”
A cell phone message left Thursday morning for the lead prosecutor in the case, Marion County deputy district attorney Brendan Murphy, was not returned. He also did not respond to questions sent by email Thursday afternoon.
Because grand jury proceedings are closed to the public, it’s unclear what may have changed prosecutors convened the second grand jury that delivered the amended indictment against Pearce.
One piece of evidence filed with the court after the original indictment was a report about the history of Pearce’s interactions with state child welfare officials prior to Christopher’s death. It was immediately sealed from the public.
Foroshani said she and her co-counsel have listened to a recording of the testimony considered by the recent grand jury and remain confident in their client’s defense.
“Based on the recording that we’ve heard, we question the state’s ability to prove the charges,” Foroshani said Thursday, hours after a status hearing in Pearce’s case.
Foroshani declined to discuss specific allegations against Pearce, including what may have changed to constitute the elevated charge tied to Christopher’s death.
Legally, the difference between a first- and second-degree manslaughter charge turns on whether the defendant’s actions show an extreme indifference to the value of the victim’s life.
Both Measure 11 charges accuse Pearce of unlawfully causing the death of her son by neglect or maltreatment. The first-degree manslaughter charge carries the extra accusation of extreme indifference — and a longer mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years, versus six years and three months.
Kevin Sali, a Portland criminal defense attorney, said it’s not uncommon for prosecutors to seek amended indictments for many reasons, such as new facts that arise during the course of an investigation. He said every case is different and he does not know the facts of this case.
“It is a little more concerning in situations when it’s perceived as happening for leverage purposes,” he said.
Christopher’s death drew immediate attention to small-town Stayton soon after the fire on Feb. 1, 2019. Investigators said they believed the fire was arson. Police and prosecutors have never publicly disclosed who they believe started the fire.
The blaze erupted inside a home that Pearce and Christopher shared with roommates. Her roommates, who had rented the home for years, were in the process of being evicted. The deadline to pay past rent coincided with the day of the fire.
Pearce was not home at the time and told police she left Christopher in the care of a friend while she did errands, according to a search warrant affidavit. A roommate who went with Pearce said they arrived home to find the house on fire.
A neighbor who heard Pearce’s cries and saw the flames tried to make it up the stairs to Christopher but was overwhelmed by smoke, the court papers say. The babysitter told police that he left at some point while Pearce was gone and left the toddler in the care of the roommates who remained at home.
Pearce was indicted two months after the fire on charges of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree child neglect.
She was released from jail in July and agreed to follow certain rules, including no contact with her two surviving children unless approved by child welfare case workers. The court didn’t place any restrictions on caring for other children.
It is unclear how the two children she is accused of mistreating came into her care. The new indictment does not say.
The court filing says Pearce “unlawfully and knowingly” withheld necessary and adequate physical care from the children sometime between when she was released from jail in July and arrested again in November.
During that time, she failed to appear at a September court hearing and a judge ordered that the release agreement be revoked. Jail records show she was arrested Oct. 31 and has remained in the Marion County Correctional Facility ever since.
The new indictment does not say when the grand jury first met to consider the new charges against Pearce.
Court filings show that after the original indictment, prosecutors received a file review from the Department of Human Services regarding its interactions with Pearce and Christopher’s family before his death. A judge sealed the review from the public.
DHS separately issued a three-page public report under laws that require it to disclose details about recent interactions with families of children who die by abuse or neglect. That report offers few details except for the fact that no allegation of abuse against Christopher was ever substantiated before he died.
The new grand jury delivered its four-count indictment Jan. 7. Ten people testified during the proceedings, including police officers, a fire marshal, Christopher’s babysitter the day of the fire and four other witnesses.
One of the witnesses, a Turner woman, was indicted the same day as Pearce on charges of criminal mistreatment and endangering the welfare of two minors. The children are the same children Pearce allegedly failed to care for.
Court papers in the other woman’s case say she was the only person who testified during the grand jury proceedings against herself.
Sali, the Portland criminal defense attorney, said people who know they are a target of an investigation typically don’t testify before the grand jury.
“It’s relatively unusual absent some kind of agreement with the prosecutor,” Sali said.
Murphy did not respond to a question about whether his office had any made or reached any deals with the woman regarding her case.
A trial date for Pearce still has not been set.
— Molly Young
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