It was a heartbreaking case that hinged on a single, almost unthinkable question: How could a mother deny cancer treatment to her own son?
Almost five years ago, Kristen LaBrie, 43, was convicted of trying to kill her young son, who died of cancer in 2009, by withholding life-sustaining chemotherapy medication for months. Despite her insistence that she meant her son no harm, she was sentenced to prison for at least eight years.
But on Wednesday, the state Supreme Judicial Court granted LaBrie’s motion for a new trial on the attempted murder charge after ruling that her lawyer, Kevin G. James, had not adequately represented her at trial.
Most notably, James’s failure to consult with an independent oncologist about the case “fell measurably below the standard of ‘an ordinary fallible lawyer,’ ” the court concluded.
In a 34-page opinion, the court also reversed LaBrie’s convictions on permitting serious bodily injury to a disabled person and permitting substantial injury to a child, while upholding the jury’s guilty verdict for reckless endangerment of a child.
Her son, Jeremy Fraser, was autistic and developmentally disabled.
LaBrie’s lawyer during the appeal, Michelle Menken, hailed the court’s decision, and said LaBrie was thrilled.
“She feels that her voice has been heard — finally —
LaBrie is serving her sentence at South Middlesex Correctional Center, a minimum security facility in Framingham, Menken said. She becomes eligible for parole next year.
LaBrie remains haunted by her son’s death, Menken said.
“She loved her son,” she said. “The loss of her son is the single biggest tragedy of her life.”
The case now returns to Essex Superior Court, where prosecutors must decide whether to retry LaBrie on a charge of attempted murder. A spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, whose office prosecuted LaBrie, said lawyers are reviewing the court’s decision.
Jeremy’s uncle, Andrew Fraser, said he was disappointed by the ruling.
“It’s upsetting to reopen old wounds,” he said. “I thought the trial was . . . fair and just and the right decision was made.”
Fraser, 48, said he will accept whatever prosecutors decide.
Jeremy’s father, Eric Fraser, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash in November 2009.
Jeremy was 7 when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2006. His doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital said he had an 85 to 90 percent chance of being cured with a two-year treatment plan that included care in the hospital and at home, according to the ruling.
At trial, prosecutors asserted that LaBrie withheld Jeremy’s medication, despite the risks it posed, because she wanted to kill him.
When confronted with evidence that many of the boy’s prescriptions had gone unfilled, LaBrie claimed the pharmacy made a mistake, and once told a state social worker that withholding the medicine would be “like pushing him in front of a car,” the ruling stated.
Jeremy’s cancer went into remission, but returned two years later as leukemia.
LaBrie’s lawyer depicted her as an overwhelmed single mother who could not bear seeing the pain the medication caused her son, who was nonverbal and suffered from seizures.
LaBrie’s decision to stop giving Jeremy his medication was a “tragic mistake,” but not a crime, her lawyer said.
In sharp words, the court ruled that her lawyer’s failure to consult with an independent oncologist undercut LaBrie’s defense.
“It was patently unreasonable for the defendant’s counsel not to consult with a qualified pediatric oncologist to explore the disease, its treatment, and in particular whether experience dealing with other caretaking parents might help to identify explanations, other than an intent to kill the child, for a parent’s decision not to give medications,” the court ruled.
During LaBrie’s appeal, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist testified it is not uncommon for parents of young chemotherapy patients to stray from long-term treatment plans, the decision said.
Some parents conclude that the side effects of treatment seem to outweigh the benefits, and that children may appear healthy even when their prescriptions are withheld.
The ruling said that James decided against consulting an oncologist in part because he believed testimony aimed at rebutting Jeremy’s doctor might reflect poorly on LaBrie. James did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
William D. Kickham, a criminal defense lawyer in Boston, said the decision highlights “the constant need for defense counsel to explore every possible avenue for defense.”
“How a defendant may appear in court if an expert witness is called on her behalf and aggressive cross examination is made of the Commonwealth’s witnesses should ... be subordinate to the defense counsel’s primary obligation, which is zealous advocacy on every legal level possible for the defendant,” he said.
Michael S. Hussey, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it never hurts to consult with experts.
“It’s better safe than sorry in these kinds of situations,” he said. “Nothing is going to be lost by reviewing a case with an expert, and sometimes it can be quite fruitful.”Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laura-crimaldi.