Judge denies Conley defense witnesses

  • Christopher W. Conley of Northampton listens to testimony during his trial for attempted murder and other charges in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2020 11:51:53 PM
Modified: 2/14/2020 11:51:40 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Tensions between opposing attorneys in the trial of Christopher Conley overshadowed new evidence Friday, as prosecutors said they felt blindsided by the content of a witness’ testimony following a ruling earlier in the day that two other defense witnesses could not testify.

With the jury out of the courtroom, lawyers sparred for 30 minutes in Hampshire Superior Court over whether certain witnesses could testify for Conley, who is charged with attempted murder for allegedly injecting drain cleaner in his then 7-year-old daughter’s cecostomy tube in April 2015.

Most notable of the witnesses that Judge Richard Carey did not allow to testify was a juvenile court lawyer whom Conley allegedly told he was going to make a false confession to police to protect his family, according to defense attorneys. In opening statements last week, one of Conley’s attorneys, Mark H. Bluver of Greenfield, said Conley made the confession to “take the blame” as the state was actively seeking custody of the girl.

Conley, 37, of Northampton, did end up confessing to authorities 12 days after his alleged interaction with that juvenile court lawyer, and the three-hour police interview from May 2015 was shown in court by the prosecution last week.

Assistant District Attorney Bethany Lynch argued in court that Conley’s statement to the lawyer was inadmissible hearsay because the witness would be repeating claims by Conley that were made out of court. Lynch said Conley allegedly told the lawyer “I’m going to give the district attorney a confession,” followed by “I didn’t do it” and “this is what we do for our family.”

Another of Conley’s attorneys, Jack Godleski, maintained that these three parts of his conversation with the lawyer were all said at once and should be taken together as it showed what Conley meant in his alleged confession.

“In order to understand the first part, ‘I’m going to give a confession,’ you need to have the other two,” Godleski said, adding that Conley allegedly already made his decision to confess when he talked to the lawyer.

Carey ruled that at least part of Conley’s alleged statement to the lawyer was “nothing more than self-serving hearsay” and did not allow the testimony.

Carey also heard lawyers on the matter of calling a nursing consultant who was going to explain medical records from 2016 which showed Conley’s daughter still had central line infections even after the state took custody of her. Conley allegedly told police that he had purposefully tried to give his daughter line infections by dipping the line in her dirty diapers to kill her in 2009. A witness testified last week that many of those infections were caused by bacteria found in feces.

Bluver said those records would “at least explain that it is obvious from the child’s medical records that the problem of central line infections did not begin and end when Mr. Conley allegedly said what he said about the 2009 incident.”

Assistant District Attorney Linda Pisano argued that the 2009 line infections were brought up only to corroborate Conley’s alleged confession about the incident to police. Calling the 2016 line infections a “collateral issue,” Pisano warned that introducing such evidence would give the jury the “improper inference” that the evidence from 2009 wasn’t accurate.

Pisano said that the girl in 2016 was wearing an ostomy bag, which increased the likelihood of infection. She said the commonwealth couldn’t properly cross-examine the nurse since she would just be reading medical records she didn’t create.

In the end, Carey decided not to allow the nursing consultant, saying the medical records could be introduced to the jury through a “qualified witness.”

Expert toxicologist Heather Harris was the second and last person to testify Friday, who explained under questioning by Godleski the chemistry behind drain cleaner and how opioids, such as the one Conley allegedly gave to his daughter after reportedly poisoning her, worked in the body.

As Godleski asked Harris, a consultant paid by the defense, questions during direct examination, he was met by a flurry of objections from First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne.

After the jury was escorted out of the room, Gagne argued that he could not properly cross-examine Harris because the prosecution was given a summary of her expected testimony only minutes before court started that morning.

“This is the most blatant ambush I have ever seen in 20 years of prosecuting,” Gagne said.

“They’ve kept this under wraps, and I am supposed to, in an hour, come up with something — the best I can on a very complex issue on the fly,” he added. “That’s not how trials are supposed to work. They’ve turned this into a game. And I don’t want to play along. I cannot.”

Bluver said Harris had not created any formal report, which would have been given in advance. Gagne said he had been filing motions for almost a year asking for expected testimony of “any and all defense experts.”

Carey denied Gagne’s request to have Harris come back Tuesday so he could craft a cross-examination over the weekend.

“To say there’s been a lack of civility on both sides, to some extent, in this case, is an understatement,” Carey said.

After an hour recess, Gagne cross-examined Harris, during which she acknowledged she did not make a report despite creating notes. Harris said she could not remember which type of Liquid-Plumr she used during her experiments and that she could not find scientific literature on what happens when drain cleaner is injected into someone’s intestines.

Also testifying was Hillary Cestaro, a registered nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital.

After court, Gagne explained that he was not trying to disparage anyone through his comments in court, but reiterated that he believed there was a disagreement about the rules of evidence.

“Ultimately I cross-examined her the way I wanted to cross-examine her,” he said. “But to do it on the fly, in the midst of trial, it’s unfortunate that it had to come to that.”

Conley’s trial resumes Tuesday.

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