A 25-year-old French au pair was convicted of involuntary manslaughter yesterday in the death of her newborn daughter, who was left to die on a concrete patio in Alexandria in near-freezing temperatures hours after her birth last March.
Karine Gaelle Epailly showed no emotion as Chief Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Donald M. Haddock issued his verdict after a day-long, non-jury trial. Haddock cleared Epailly of a second charge of felony child abuse, saying it would be "piling on."
Epailly faces up to 10 years in prison when she is sentenced Oct. 21, but sentencing guidelines suggest no more than six months in jail. She will continue to live in Reston with her mother, who has posted a $25,000 cash bond for her daughter.
Choking back tears, Epailly--who had hidden her pregnancy from family and friends--testified that she spent two hours cuddling and breast-feeding the 6 1/2-pound infant after giving birth alone in the bathroom of her au pair suite, even naming the girl "Sarah." She severed the umbilical cord with a paring knife.
But in the predawn hours of March 4, Epailly said, she decided to give the baby away because she was not mature enough to care for her. Wrapping the infant in a dish towel and fashioning a pair of panties into a diaper, Epailly left her daughter on the back patio of a garden apartment on Seminary Road.
"I was sure that someone would hear her crying and take care of her," Epailly said. "I can't take care of myself, so how can I take care of somebody else?"
A defense psychiatrist also testified that Epailly may have suffered brain damage from anti-seizure medication taken when she was young, contributing to a lack of maturity and a "dependent personality disorder."
"I think I overprotected her," testified her mother, Danielle Herbert.
But Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Krista Boucher argued that Epailly displayed little concern for the well-being of her newborn, dodging repeated chances to seek medical help and never coming forward to authorities after the infant's body was found. Epailly had even taken the placenta with her in a plastic bag and dumped it down the sewer, Boucher said, a sign that she was focused only on hiding the birth.
"This woman absolutely had a duty to care for this infant," Boucher told Haddock in her closing argument. "How does she perform that duty? . . . Instead of getting help, she abandons her baby in the middle of the night. . . . She was determined to get rid of that baby and leave no signs."
Epailly, a French national, had been working as an au pair for Maureen Orsini and her husband, an official at the French Embassy in Washington, taking care of their home and three young daughters. Epailly had lived in the United States previously and graduated from a Maryland high school; she had been attending catering school in Paris before coming back to work for the Orsinis.
Epailly testified that she did not suspect she was pregnant until after arriving in Virginia in November, and even then denied it to herself. She never saw a doctor or went to a medical clinic, telling Maureen Orsini that her swollen belly was caused by stress.
Two pathologists, including a state medical examiner, testified for the state that Sarah probably died of hypothermia in one to two hours after being left in the cold rain and temperatures as low as 37 degrees. But a defense pathologist argued that the infant may have died as the result of a head injury suffered during birth or when Epailly fell after fainting.
Public defender Jeffrey Barbour said Epailly believed that a welcoming family would find and care for her daughter.
"This is a girl who believed she was placing this child in better hands," Barbour said. "She didn't believe she was placing the child at risk. As mistaken and ill-conceived as that notion is, it is the truth."
Epailly and her mother declined to comment after the verdict. Alexandria police have taken possession of Epailly's passport to deter flight from the country, and a French representative told the judge that other travel papers are being kept at the French Consulate in Washington.