Defense challenges mother’s confession in deaths of 3 sons


She is accused of smothering her children over 13 months

By HOLLY ZACHARIAH

The Columbus Dispatch

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio

The woman sat emotionless, never once glancing at the images as photos from the autopsies of the three young sons she is accused of killing flashed on a giant screen.

She didn’t look when doctors pointed out the bruises on the bodies, or when they discussed the mark on the nose of one son that authorities said was probably caused when his mother pinched off the child’s airway. She didn’t wipe away tears; she didn’t drop her head.

Brittany Pilkington, 26, just sat and looked ahead as her boys were discussed in the coldest of clinical terms.

But her reactions – or lack of them – and an inability to process information because of a lifetime of her own trauma and abuse were at the heart of a two-day hearing in Logan County Common Pleas Court this week in her case, which has lingered without resolution for almost 31/2 years.

Pilkington has been in Logan County Jail since just hours after her third son died in August 2015. She is charged with aggravated murder, accused of smothering her three boys in her family’s Bellefontaine home over 13 months: 3-month-old son, Niall, in July 2014; Gavin, 4, in April 2015; and infant Noah in August 2015. She faces the death penalty if convicted.

The first death had initially been unexplained; the second one was under investigation when the third occurred.

Her defense team argued this week that her nine-hour confession after Noah’s death wasn’t voluntary and that she lacked the ability to understand her rights. In addition, they are citing a law that says, in essence, that prosecutors must have some evidence outside of a confession to proceed with such a case – hence, testimony about the autopsies and injuries.

“The dynamics of her interrogation mirrored her lifetime of abuse,” defense attorney Kort Gatterdam said in his opening statement. “She had no defenses to fight back,” so she just confessed.

The issue of the confession has been settled once before: Judge Mark S. O’Connor, who is hearing the case by special assignment, ruled then that even though police were overly confrontational when questioning Pilkington, she gave her statement willingly.

But the judge agreed to reopen the issue after defense attorneys said they had uncovered new information about Pilkington’s background, including a diagnosis of lead poisoning when she was a child, something that two psychologists testified this week probably affected her cognitive abilities.

The detectives were cruel in their interrogation, and the statements that Pilkington gave about killing her children “were not made of her own free will,” said Howard D. Fradkin, a psychologist and sexual-trauma expert hired by the defense.

Neuropsychologist Jeffrey Madden, also hired by the defense, took it further: “It was a capitulation, not a confession.”

There also was testimony about how Pilkington had been sexually abused as a child and eventually became pregnant at 15 by Joseph Pilkington, who at the time was her mother’s boyfriend and 20 years older than Brittany.

When she was a child, he banged her head repeatedly against her bedpost, which might have caused brain damage, the defense argued.

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