Nancy J. Brookbank, a Waldorf babysitter accused of severely injuring an 11-month-old boy in 1998, made a plea this week in Prince George's County Circuit Court in which she did not admit guilt but conceded that the state had enough evidence for a judge or jury to find her guilty of child abuse.
That action, known as an Alford plea, effectively ends the high-profile prosecution of Brookbank, 34. In response to her plea, the court convicted her of one count of child abuse in connection with the head injuries suffered by Jack Sprague of La Plata. Since the injuries, Jack, now 6, has been brain-damaged, partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, his parents have said. Authorities and experts have said he will never recover from his injuries.
In 2001, a jury convicted Brookbank of child abuse but acquitted her of felony assault. She was sentenced to five years in prison, but after serving 22 months, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the conviction. On Monday, Brookbank received the same sentence from Circuit Court Judge Michael Whalen in Prince George's, where the case had been moved on a change of venue.
Brookbank will not return to prison, however, because Charles County State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. (D) agreed not to ask Whalen to order Brookbank to serve the remaining time on her original sentence. Collins said he also agreed that Brookbank would not have to pay more than $13,000 in restitution to the Sprague family. Brookbank will remain on supervised probation for three years, the lawyers on both sides said.
Collins urged the community not to forget Jack.
"This is a tragedy for a healthy 11-month-old boy who was dropped off at the sitter's house and five hours later he had suffered a devastating brain injury," he said. "He now has cerebral palsy. . . . He will have to be fed, bathed and cared for by his family for the rest of his life."
After winning a new trial, Brookbank had intended to fight the charge in court, a relative said, but recently changed her mind and agreed to the plea. Brookbank's attorney, Robert H. Harvey Jr., said there were three motivations for entering the Alford plea.
"One, we wanted to get it over with," he said. "She's had this thing hanging over her head now for six years."
In addition, Harvey said Brookbank "absolutely did not want to be subjected to the risk of going back to jail." Finally, the one expert medical witness Harvey had expected to call to testify that Jack's injuries were at least potentially accidental called Harvey the night before the trial was to begin to say he did not feel he could testify to that effect, the defense lawyer said.
"Tactically, that put us at some disadvantage," he said.
A relative described Brookbank this week as "very upset."
"She's trying to accept what has happened. It really is disturbing to her," said Tina Brookbank, who is related by marriage to Nancy Brookbank's husband.
During the long legal battle, the Brookbank case was both emotionally charged and highly politicized. Hundreds of Brookbank supporters, joined in an organization known as Freedom4Nancy, staged protests at the courthouse, paid for newspaper advertisements and raised tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to prove her innocence. Some members worked on the 2002 campaign of state Del. W. Louis Hennessy (R), who was running against Collins for state's attorney. Collins won by fewer than 1,000 votes.
"[Brookbank] admitted in court that the state had enough evidence to convict her again. The politicians who attempted to use this tragedy owe the Sprague family an apology and the community an explanation," Collins said after the plea was entered.
In addition to the criminal proceedings, John and Robin Sprague, Jack's parents, filed a civil suit after their son was injured. In February, a Charles County Circuit Court jury awarded the Spragues more than $5 million in damages after finding that three doctors failed to detect symptoms of abuse in November 1998. The Circuit Court jury found that the doctors should have performed a CT scan on Jack Sprague when his parents took him to the hospital after suffering a head injury at Brookbank's Waldorf home. The jury decided a more serious injury, which happened Dec. 4, could have been prevented if doctors had noticed the bleeding in his brain, known as a subdural hematoma.
Tina Brookbank said Tuesday that Freedom4Nancy plans to continue meeting as a prayer group. She said Nancy Brookbank "is a very spiritual person. She knows God knows the truth. She can sleep at night knowing she had nothing to do with the problems of this child."
She said Nancy Brookbank does feel sorry about Jack's injuries and hopes that the Sprague family can put this behind them.
"For us, it's an unfortunate end to the story, but we'll have to accept it," she said.
Efforts to reach the Sprague family through a representative Tuesday were unsuccessful.