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Lake Geneva couple accused of child abuse found guilty on seven out of 10 charges

By Andrea Anderson
July 29, 2015

ELKHORN—A Walworth County jury delivered guilty verdicts Wednesday on seven out of 10 counts against a Lake Geneva couple accused of child abuse.

As the judge read the verdicts, some of the couple's adopted children sat in the front pew as members of their new families sat behind them with their arms stretched out to rub their shoulders and backs.

Sighs and sobs were audible. Tears were visible.

The defendants, Martin and Kathleen O'Brien, showed little emotion and stared at the judge as the verdicts were read.

After about 10 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury of eight women and four men found the O'Briens guilty on six counts of party to child abuse and one count of party to disorderly conduct and not guilty on three counts of party to child abuse.

A day-and-a-half of closings came to an end Tuesday with prosecutor Diane Donohoo telling the 12-person jury it was time for the underdogs to be heard.

“When David finally took on Goliath, he had his slingshot,” Donohoo said.

“They had the truth,” she said referring to three of the adopted children, “and the truth is finally here in this courtroom. And there is only one truth: Kathleen O'Brien and Martin O'Brien, those two defendants, are guilty.”

The O'Briens were charged in May 2012 with a combined 23 felony and misdemeanor charges of abusing their six adopted children from Russia and Guatemala. Some of the counts were dismissed. The remaining focused on three male children.

Martin pleaded not guilty in December to five felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child.

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

They also pleaded not guilty to a mutual charge of party to physical abuse of a child.

Both were found guilty Wednesday on the mutual child abuse charge.

Martin also was convicted on three counts of party to physical abuse of a child, and Kathleen was convicted on two counts of party to physical abuse of a child and one count of party to disorderly conduct.

During her portion of closing arguments Tuesday, Kathleen's attorney Kathleen Quinn started by loudly repeating statements the now 20-year-old adopted son made during the trial.

“Hey, you're not my mother. I never trusted her as my mother. She was never going to be my mother,” Quinn repeated to the jury. “I never hit her without a reason.”

“Kathleen never stood a chance,” Quinn said.

She told the jury the adopted son was not capable of connecting with his adopted family because of his early childhood in Russia riddled with abuse and alcoholism.

During the trial, the defense depicted the 20-year-old son as a ringleader who was one of the most problematic children. They claimed he scared and threatened the other adopted children into thinking they were treated differently than the O'Briens' biological children.

By the 20-year-old convincing the others that they were being treated differently, the O'Briens lives were made difficult, the defense claimed.

Quinn echoed Martin's attorney Kathleen Stilling's statements made in closings Monday. The two claimed the six adopted children didn't realize the O'Briens loved them and misconstrued their actions.

“They couldn't see what the O'Briens felt for them, which was love. They couldn't see that they were worthy of that love,” Quinn said.

The six adopted children were abused for years, starting shortly after some arrived in the United States, Donohoo said.

The prosecution claimed 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.

The prosecution also claims the O'Briens made the children eat frozen bread, kneed a now 17-year-old in the groin, 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 to never seeing Martin or Kathleen intentionally harm any child and never saw evidence of intentional abuse. Both sons said Kathleen feared for her life after the 20-year-old threatened to kill her before she sprayed the boy with pepper spray.

Inconsistencies in the adopted children's statements were reason for a jury not to convict, Stilling argued.

Some charges, the defense said, never happened and were made up by the children because of the herd mentality and influence of people putting the O'Briens in a “bad light,” Quinn said.

The defense's arguments were smoke and mirrors, Donohoo said, intended to distract the jury from the statements made by the adopted children and other people linked to the case.

Donohoo argued the O'Briens tried to avoid being investigated by police and social workers by pulling the kids from public school and isolating them through homeschooling. This prevented the children from disclosing any incidents and prevented people from noticing any injuries, Donohoo said.

The defense maintained that is inaccurate and the children were pulled for behavioral or educational needs and were still enrolled in various extracurricular activities. The O'Briens also called the police several times after the 20 year-old ran away from home or hurt another child, Quinn said.

The defense did conceded Martin or Kathleen made the children take off their clothes, had them kneel on rocks, locked them in their rooms and spanked them with a belt for bad behavior.

“They were facing enormous challenges with these kids,” Quinn said.

“They did some unorthodox but not abusive things to these kids to try and get some control and in an attempt to truly help these kids because they loved them,” Quinn said.

Martin will face a maximum of 24 years in prison and Kathleen 18 years in prison when they are sentenced at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the Walworth County Judicial Center.

They remain free on bond.