SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Natalia Fay Benson spent nearly all of her life hooked up to tubes, unable to move, see, speak, breathe on her own or expect to grow up.
Medical experts had thoroughly documented the brain and spinal cord injuries that marked shaken baby syndrome, along with broken bones, a detached retina and a skull fracture.
Natalia was 3 1/2 months old then, in 2005. A jury convicted her mother, Barbara Schrock, of battery in 2009. Schrock was sentenced to 13 years in Indiana’s Women’s Prison.
Meanwhile, Natalia was sent to live with a trained foster mother in northwestern Indiana, where her father, Brant Benson, of Buchanan, and his mother and stepfather, Gary and Charlene Mullins, of Galien, Mich., visited regularly.
Natalia’s injuries never improved. She barely lived through several incidents where she was airlifted to an Indianapolis hospital, her foster mother and father’s family say. Her battered brain signaled her little body to endure puberty and menopause at the same time.
The little girl finally died on March 25, 2011, in a hospital in Carmel, Ind.
Her mother, who has consistently denied guilt in Natalia’s abuse, lost an appeal of her case and, over the years, requests for a sentence reduction and a change of prison placement.
Now Indiana’s Department of Correction says Schrock is eligible for early release into a corrections program — which would have to be approved by St. Joseph Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hurley, who took over the case from retired Judge Roland Chamblee Jr. — before her official early release date of July 18 this year.
Natalia’s family protests Schrock’s release even this summer, noting that Schrock would not have spent even as much time in prison as her daughter did wasting away.
Most of all, they want to see Schrock now charged with murder.
But according to St. Joseph County Deputy Prosecutor Ken Cotter, murder charges for Schrock are not likely to come anytime soon.
Schrock did not respond to a reporter’s letter sent to her in prison seeking comment.
DOC spokesman Doug Garrison said the DOC has ruled Schrock eligible for St. Joseph County’s Community Transition Program. He said the judge has not yet ruled on the request — and may not.
“It’s in the judge’s hands,” he told the South Bend Tribune.
Benson, who gave up his parental rights to Natalia because he could not afford the 24-hour care she would need, is raising their other daughter, who is now 11 and doing well.
Schrock, he said, “will have served less time in prison than Natalia suffered from her injuries.”
Gary Mullins recalled the day of Schrock’s sentencing when Natalia’s foster mother, Cindy Lorentzen, wheeled the girl into the courtroom. Even the judge wiped away a tear, Mullins said.
“Barb looked like she was watching paint dry,” he said. “She never showed any emotion, even at the hospital.”
Lorentzen is even more passionate in her opinion of what justice would look like in this case.
“She really went through living hell,” she said of Natalia. “No child should have to go through that.”
Lorentzen said Schrock never seemed concerned about her child, even before she was charged with her abuse, describing the mother as “arrogant and cocky.”
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she said. “I’m a Christian person, but I don’t think she’s served enough time.”
Cotter, who was lead prosecutor in the case, said recently that if asked, he would tell the judge the same thing.
“There are certain crimes that are beneficial a person be released in a structured program,” he said. “This is definitely not one of them. I’m not sure I can say it as strongly as how I feel.”
Cotter also agreed with the family’s description of Schrock’s motivations of trying to pin Natalia’s injuries on everything and everyone but herself.
But he and Prosecutor Michael Dvorak have agreed they won’t charge Schrock with the girl’s murder.
No murder charge
After Natalia died, the coroner in Hamilton County, Thurl Cecil Jr., called the Department of Children’s Service office in St. Joseph County, he told The Tribune for a 2012 article. Should he perform an autopsy? he asked.
The answer, he said, was no — it was clear enough that her earlier injuries led to her death.
Although Cecil ruled Natalia’s death a homicide, prosecutors regret that no autopsy was performed, Cotter acknowledged.
“That’s certainly an evidentiary hurdle we would have to overcome. Not insurmountable, but certainly a hurdle,” he said.
But the bigger hurdle is in persuading a jury that a mother intended to kill her child.
Schrock was originally taken to trial in 2007, and the jury was hung 6 to 6, Cotter said. After questioning those first jurors extensively, prosecutors shored up aspects of the case “on whether her actions caused the injuries and whether her actions were neglectful.”
The second jury came back with a verdict.
“I wish the answer was different,” said Cotter, who flew back from a family vacation to attend Natalia’s funeral. “When a parent injures a child that results in their death, do I feel it’s murder? Yes, but that’s not my call. It’s what our juries are going to say, it’s what our juries believe.”
And in cases he’s prosecuted — notably Valentin Escobedo and Kwasi Barnes — juries just did not believe the intent enough to convict of murder.
Cotter notes his decision could change, if some other evidence were to emerge in the future. There is no statute of limitations for murder.
But that doesn’t satisfy Benson, who says Schrock should be in prison the rest of her life.
“My goal is to be the voice of Natalia,” he said. “If we go to trial and lose, at least they could say, `We attempted, we tried, we did everything we could do.’ And I’d be happy with that.”‘
Information from: South Bend Tribune