Credibility at stake in child abuse trial

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Andrea Anderson | July 27, 2015

ELKHORN—After 10 days of testimony, a jury has to decide who is more credible: the adopted children, who claim Kathleen and Martin O'Brien physically and emotionally abused them, or the O'Briens, who say they were pushed to their limits by troubled children.

“Credibility. That's what this case is all about. You need to figure out who do you believe is telling the truth in everyone of those 10 crimes,” prosecutor Diane Donohoo told the jury Monday pointing to a list of the charges against the Lake Geneva couple.

During first of what will stretch into two days of closing arguments, Donohoo said the jury should believe the adopted children, who say they were repeatedly abused by the O'Briens.

Martin O'Brien's defense attorney Kathleen Stilling claimed Monday the children's testimony of events has too many discrepancies to be believed without a reasonable doubt. Stilling said the O'Briens are loving parents who wanted to make a difference in the lives of children who had a rough start in their native countries.

Kathleen and Martin O'Brien were charged in May 2012 with a combined 23 felony and misdemeanor charges of abusing their six adopted children from Russian and Guatemala. Some charges have since been dismissed and now focus on three male children.

Martin pleaded not guilty to six felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child.

Kathleen pleaded not guilty in December to four felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child and misdemeanor party to disorderly conduct.

The six adopted children were abused for years, starting months after some were adopted, Donohoo said.

A few of the adopted children testified during the trial, including the now 20-year-old whom the defense has painted as the most problematic child. The defense said he corralled and scared the other adopted children into thinking they were being treated differently than the O'Briens' biological children and to make the O'Briens' lives difficult.

The testimony of the children differ, the prosecution and defense agreed.

Donohoo attributed it to differences of perception.

People remember the “core detail” of an event, such as sliding a wedding ring on a finger, rather than the “peripheral details,” Donohoo said.

“There are different versions because of the different viewpoints. That doesn't mean somebody isn't an accurate reporter,” Donohoo said of the children's differing details.

She said the essentials of the events--the abusive actions--remained consistent.

The prosecution has claimed the O'Briens made the children eat frozen bread, kneed a now 17-year-old in the genitals, locked the children in a bedroom for hours, didn't feed the six for extended periods and made the children stand naked in front of the four biological children who laughed at them.

Two biological sons testified they never saw Kathleen or Martin intentionally harm any child and never saw evidence of intentional abuse. Both sons said their mother feared for her life after the now-20-year-old threatened to kill her before she sprayed the boy with pepper spray in what she claimed to be self-defense.

The inconsistencies in the children's statements are too apparent for a jury not to question the validity and motives of the adopted children, Stilling said.

One of the children testified that one of the charged actions was outside, while another said it was inside, Stilling said.

“It just doesn't make sense,” Stilling said many times Monday.

Three of the adopted children were in therapy, and the O'Briens called police several times about the now 20-year-old who ran away from home multiple times, Stilling said.

“Wouldn't you imagine if you send your children to a therapist and are calling the police that they'd spill the beans?” she asked the jury.

During the trial, Donohoo and two children said the O'Briens made the adopted children stand outside in the winter naked for hours and made a then-10-year-old girl stand outside barefoot in the winter for so long her feet swelled and turned purple.

Stilling asked the jury to think about why the children wouldn't have gone to a neighbor for help.

Stilling said the accusations stem from the adopted children's troubled pasts with alcoholic or abusive biological parents, leading to attachment disorders and the children fearing close relationships with adults who could care for them in a loving manner.

“When they got here, these children were very, very damaged,” Stilling said.

Fear caused them to push away the O'Briens and not trust the couple, Stilling said.

The defense also argues the 20-year-old adopted son had a history of threatening and scaring the other adopted children.
The alleged punishments were the result of the children taking food from the kitchen because they were hungry, not doing chores or answering a question incorrectly, according to the now 17-year-old boy's testimony and Donohoo.

Kathleen's attorney Kathleen Quinn will make her closing arguments Tuesday. The O'Briens will be back in court at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Walworth County Judicial Center.

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