Associated Press

Conn. Supreme Court Overturns Mother's Conviction in Son's Suicide

by John Christofferson
The Associated Press

08-29-2006

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday overturned a mother's conviction on charges that she contributed to her 12-year-old son's suicide by keeping a filthy house.

In ordering the trial court to acquit Judith Scruggs of Meriden, Conn., the court said the law used to convict her was unconstitutionally vague.

Scruggs was convicted of risk of injury to a minor in 2003, a year and a half after her son, J. Daniel, hanged himself with a necktie in his closet. Legal experts said it was thought to be the first time a parent had been convicted over a child's suicide.

Prosecutors said the boy was miserable because his schoolmates ridiculed his body odor and bad breath, caused by Scruggs' filthy home and her lack of attention to the boy's hygiene. Scruggs said her son killed himself because he was bullied at school, and she filed a federal lawsuit against Meriden school officials contending they should have stopped it.

"It helps, but the damage has already been done," Scruggs told The Associated Press. "It relieves the stigma of being a convicted felon. But all the pain and anguish I've gone through will never go away."

Scruggs said she was shocked when authorities charged her. She said her apartment was cluttered but not filthy.

"I miss him every day," Scruggs said. "The pain is always there."

Writing for the majority, Justice William Sullivan said there were several possible explanations for Daniel's state of mind and behavior, including the relentless bullying.

"In the present case, the state concedes that being messy is not, in and of itself, unlawful, and points to no objective standards for determining the point at which housekeeping becomes so poor that an ordinary person should know that it poses an unacceptable risk to the mental health of a child," Sullivan wrote.

Scruggs' current attorney, G. Douglas Nash, said he was "very pleased" by the ruling.

"That's what we were asking for," Nash said. "It was a tragic event from the beginning to the end. She suffered emotionally as a mother. On top of that, to have this criminal case, just made things very difficult."

A message seeking comment from prosecutors was not immediately returned Monday.

In court three years ago, prosecutors contended that the Scruggs home was so dirty that the medical examiner had to climb over heaps of debris to get to the boy's body. Witnesses described a home where there was barely room to move because of clothes, boxes, papers and debris covering the floor. The air was foul, and the bathroom floor and tub were covered with clothes.

Scruggs' trial defense attorney said her client was a single mother who worked long hours to support her two children, and argued that no psychologist or counselor ever testified that her home was a factor in the boy's death. Scruggs was convicted and sentenced to probation and community service.

Justice David Borden, in a concurring opinion, noted that the state Department of Children and Families had inspected the home days before the boy's suicide and suggested he be kept home until he was transferred to another school.

"Indeed, the department's message was that the defendant should keep Daniel home from school in the very conditions that the same state of Connecticut, through its criminal prosecutorial arm, later charged created an unreasonable risk to his mental health," Borden wrote.

Daniel's death inspired a state law requiring schools to report bullies to authorities, and many school districts have revamped bullying policies.

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