A Fairfax County jury yesterday convicted Martha E. Guba of child neglect in the death of 10-month-old Ashley Snead, who died of poisoning from a prescription drug while in Guba's care. The jury recommended the maximum of 10 years in prison.
"Good things do happen after a baby dies," Ashley's mother, Jane Snead, said in a soft voice after the verdict was announced. "Parents must ask, 'How do you go on living after the death of a baby?' Your lives are turned upside down, but you keep going on by pulling together because of what the little baby brought into your lives. We have the love and the spirit of little Ashley with us always."
Guba's four-day trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court on the felony child neglect charge was an emotionally charged affair that brought tears to the eyes of many witnesses and onlookers, and a few jurors cried.
The trial concluded with a harsh sentence recommendation in a rare case that highlighted the Washington area's dependence on those who provide day care in their homes. Washington has the highest percentage of working women of any metropolitan area in the nation.
Circuit Judge Thomas J. Middleton, who presided at the trial, can reduce the sentence.
The prosecution charged that, during a period of up to three days, Guba had dosed the infant with the prescription drug imipramine to keep the infant quiet. The defense contended that the child accidentally found the drug in a trash can.
Guba was on a list of day care providers kept by the county Office for Children. To be placed on the list, individuals must be screened by the Protective Services Registry of Virginia's Department of Social Services, but state law does not require a criminal background check.
Guba was convicted of neglecting her own two children in 1968, according to her lawyer, Thomas J. Morris Sr.
Fairfax Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason) announced yesterday that the county board will consider steps to regulate home day care centers, including record checks on individuals and home inspections.
"The county ought to get out of the list business or put some teeth in it," Davis said. "We're not going to sit around for the state to put some teeth in this thing."
According to court testimony, Jane Snead, who works at Dominion Federal Savings & Loan Association's corporate headquarters at Tysons Corner, and her husband Ronald, a lieutenant colonel and systems performance officer in the Army, obtained Guba's name from the county list when Ashley was about 5 weeks old. She was their only child.
The Sneads hired Guba after interviewing the sitter at her home at 6145 Bardu Ave. Some parents who testified at the trial said the house, sometimes filled with six to eight children, seemed unusually quiet.
On July 28, about eight months later, Jane Snead received several phone calls at work from Guba. First, the baby sitter told her that Ashley had swallowed a Tylenol. Snead asked her to call the doctor, and Guba rang back to tell her the doctor said the baby would be fine. Several hours later, Snead received another call.
"Ashley's dying! Ashley's dying!" Snead testifed Guba shouted into the phone. "I said, 'Martha, call 911!' She said, 'They're here! They're here!'"
Ashley had stopped breathing, and rescue workers could not revive her. Initially, a medical examiner believed sudden infant death syndrome had killed Ashley, but a toxicologist studying samples of her blood and tissue discovered imipramine poisoning.
Imipramine is used to treat depression in adults and bed-wetting in children over age 6. The Sneads had no idea where the drug had come from, Jane Snead testified.
Fairfax County police began investigating. Guba told homicide investigator Gary Healy in a statement that she had no prescriptions for the drug, Healy testified, but that she had discovered one of her husband's imipramine tablets under her microwave oven about a week before Ashley died. Guba later told Healy she found the pill just before the child's death, Healy said.
During a preliminary hearing, the case was dismissed by a lower court judge for lack of evidence, but the prosecutor sent the case directly to a grand jury and Guba was indicted.
Prosecutor Raymond Brownelle maintained in his summation to the jury that Guba had been administering the drug regularly to Ashley to sedate her, to keep Ashley "out of her hair." State toxicologist Anh N. Huynh said that the child could have been ingesting the drug "maybe longer than two to three days."
Guba's attorney Morris argued that Ashley's death was an accident, the result of the child swallowing the drug she found in her baby sitter's trash can. He painted a portrait of a "loving, concerned baby sitter."
An Annandale doctor testified that in the last two years he had repeatedly given Guba prescriptions for imipramine, once to help her cope with having watched a neighbor fatally shoot himself and another for her depression after the death of her husband. Brownelle pointed out to the jury that her husband, who testified, was alive, and so was the neighbor.
Parents of other children under Guba's care testified that they were told that Ashley, who was rarely active, suffered from Down's Syndrome. The baby did not have Down's, said the prosecutor.
In his closing arguments Brownelle told the jury that Guba "willfully and knowingly" neglected Ashley, argued that Guba intentionally gave the drug to the child and made a decision not to seek help.
As the jury's verdict was read yesterday, one of Guba's two daughters, Gail Ahl Stephen, cried out and slumped onto her husband's shoulder. Guba sat quietly between two defense attorneys and showed no outward reactions.
Afterward, outside the courtroom, Jane Snead, whose testimony during the trial reduced some of the jurors to tears, said she and her husband plan to channel their anger into the day care issue in some way. Said Snead: "Maybe we can help other parents, and maybe this won't happen again."
Staff writer Lynda Richardson contributed to this report.