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By Sue Epstein/The Star-Ledger
on April 24, 2014 at 3:04 PM
HIGHLAND PARK — An appeals court has granted a Highland Park woman a hearing to determine if she should be permitted to retract her 2006 guilty plea to murder in the death of her 6-year-old son.
The three-judge panel published a 30-page decision today that grants Alice O’Donnell a post-conviction relief hearing to determine if she can show that her attorney’s ineffectiveness led to her pleading guilty to killing her son, Phillip O’Donnell, instead of pursuing a trial with the defense that she was mentally ill when she smothered her son with a pillow on Feb. 21, 2005.
The judges overturned a lower court’s decision to deny O’Donnell’s motion for the hearing, arguing there is enough evidence that she suffered from mental illness at the time of the killing and that her attorney may not have given her the right advice when he told her to accept the plea to murder with a sentence of 30 years in prison without parole.
“Acquittal (at a trial) was far from certain,” the judges said. “Yet, it is not self-evident that pleading guilty was a reasonable strategy, particularly since the agreement called for a plea to the indictment, and a sentence resulting in defendant’s incarceration until age 74.”
The appellate panel said O’Donnell’s readiness to go to trial “is plausible, because she had a plausible defense that she could present through her expert’s and perhaps her own testimony.”
O’Donnell argued in her motion for a hearing that her attorney was ineffective by failing to “diligently” pursue a diminished (mental) capacity defense, according to the appellate decision.
She also said that her attorney, who was not identified in the decision, “unexpectectedly” pressed her to plead guilty shortly before her case was set for trial, “without adequate explanation, stating it was necessary to avoid a life sentence,” according to the judges.
Authorities said O’Donnell, distraught over mounting financial troubles, smothered her son in bed with a pillow after feeding him an overdose of cold medication and an antidepressant.
O’Donnell, then 42, wrote at least two suicide notes that she intended to kill herself as well, but succeeded in inflicting only superficial cuts to her forearms before police arrested her in her Highland Park apartment.
Her two sisters, alarmed by a phone call from officials at the Irving Primary School when Phillip O’Donnell, a first-grader, didn’t show up for school, went to the Donaldson Park Apartments to find the child was dead and his mother laying next to him with the cuts on her arms.
The appellate decision said in the months before Phillip’s death, O’Donnell experienced several difficulties, including the loss of her partner, Phyllis (Mari) who died in 2004. He was the bread winner of the family and paid the bills.
Sometime after her partner’s death, O’Donnell was unable to find a job and pay the rent, and faced eviction.
O’Donnell told police after she fed him an antidepressant and Benadryl, an allergy medicine known to cause drowsiness, she put a pillow over his face and held it until the child stopped moving.
The decision said O’Donnell had a history of mental illness and psychiatric hospitalizations. A doctor hired by her defense attorney examined her, in preparing for her trial, said in his report that her “mental capacity was so impaired that she was unable to engage in purposeful conduct.”
At one point before the case was to go to trial in March 2006, the judge sanctioned the attorney because he “failed to pay reasonable attention” to making sure prosecutors had the defense medical expert’s report on time and, when questioned by the judge, “misled the (judge) about his progress,” the decision said.
The judges said the attorney’s behavior that led to his being fined is another consideration they used in deciding O’Donnell was entitled to a hearing on whether, because of his actions, she should be allowed to retract her guilty plea.