By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO December 19, 2003 After about five hours of deliberation on Tuesday, a Sullivan County jury found 50-year-old Diane Odell guilty of murdering three of her babies in circumstances evidencing a depraved indifference to human life.
In the Babies in Boxes murder case, Odell was charged with six counts of murder in the second degree (two counts for each infant: intentional and depraved).
The jury tossed out the three counts of intentional murder but unanimously found her guilty of depraved murder in the second degree.
As a result of the Class A Felony convictions, Odell faces a maximum sentence of 75 years to life in state prison.
At sentencing scheduled for January 27, Sullivan County Judge Frank J. LaBuda can sentence Odell from a minimum of 15 years to life, up to a maximum of 25 to life on each count, if he decides to sentence her consecutively for the three murders.
As the jury announced its verdict, Odell sat between her two Legal Aid defense attorneys, silently weeping, clutching a rosary.
Lead defense attorney Stephan Schick reacted by resting his head on his hand, staring down at the defense table in apparent disbelief. To Odells right, defense attorney Tim Havas kept his eyes fixed on the jury as he tightly gripped Odells left hand.
As the jury of three men and nine women was polled by county court clerk Earl Lilley, Odells common-law husband Robert Sauerstein and their five childen seemed stunned by the verdict.
Moments later, Odell was led in handcuffs out of the courtroom by Sullivan County Sheriffs Department deputies.
She turned to her family and said, Dont cry, guys. I love you.
As the players were leaving the courtroom stage, Schick reflected on the case.
My reaction is deep sadness, he said. Im sad for the three babies, whether they were born alive or they werent, [and] Im sad for Diane, because shes led a life of abuse since she was born until today.
Shell probably receive the same sentence as Saddam Hussein, which is life in prison, he added. Somehow, I dont think thats justice.
Afterwards, the dispirited Legal Aid attorney sat down in a slatted wooden chair next to the judges raised platform and reflected on the verdict that will in all likelihood have his client spending her life behind bars.
Odells common-law husband then faced the cameras and microphones in a mini-media blitz outside the courtroom.
I know that the police lied, because I was there [during a phase of the initial questioning], said Sauerstein.
He declined to provide specifics but said the verdict would be appealed.
Were appealing, because we know she didnt do it, said Sauerstein. Shes a very good person.
Odells paramour called into question the testimony of State Police forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, a medical expert who said that while he couldnt determine if the infants were born alive (due to the passage of time and the state of mummification/decomposition), he ruled the deaths as homicides due to traumatic asphyxia.
He works for the State Police, said Sauerstein. Have you ever seen him work for the defense? I havent.
On Odells Side
While the jury deliberated, the prosecution and defense nervously awaited the verdict.
Outside in the hallway, Jim Feeney of Swan Lake stuck up for Odell.
He said he got to know the defendant while visiting his wife Donna when she was serving seven months in the county lockup on a conviction of petty larceny.
Im out here for moral and spiritual support. . . . This woman has a heart of gold, he said. Im not a judge, I dont judge nobody, but I cant see this woman doing that. . . . She just couldnt part with them [the dead infants].
Im just praying for a miracle, added Feeney. She needs somebody in her corner.
The Babies in Boxes murder case followed in the wake of the Garbage Can Murder trial of Hal Karen earlier this year.
Both murder cases were covered by the Courtroom Television Network. Court TV producers of the Odell trial were Lena K. Jakobsson and Carolyn Purcell.
According to Purcell, Court TV will air their coverage within a month.
For Stephen Lungen, Sullivan Countys veteran district attorney, the Babies in Boxes murder case against Diane Odell started in 1989 when the remains of a mummified infant born to her in 1972 were discovered in a suitcase in a junked car.
But for the Grant County Sheriffs Department in Arizona, it began 14 years later on May 12, 2003 when the mummified and/or badly decomposed remains of the three babies (born from 1982-95 in Sullivan County) were uncovered in a storage shed in Arizona.
Two days before, Thomas Bright purchased the abandoned contents at auction. When he started opening up boxes, Bright found what he thought was a dead baby and called the cops.
As investigators examined the contents of storage shed #2, they found two more dead infants.
The trail of the murders quickly led to Odell, who was questioned by Pennsylvania State Police (and later New York State Police) after she was located in Rome, Pa. working at a Rite-Aid.
During taped interviews, Odell admitted the babies were born in NY and concealed in boxes which finally wound up in Arizona.
A Very Difficult Case
After the verdict, DA Lungen held an informal press conference in his office.
I think the senior investigator [Thomas Scileppi] and I are of the same opinion: this was a very difficult case, he said. We were the only ones talking about victims rights for these three babies. . . . When I told the jury that, I meant it.
I was honored and privileged to represent these babies in the courtroom. . . . Nobody in the world wanted them, said Lungen. They needed somebody to be their advocate and tell the world what happened to them.
Lungen said that evidence pertaining to the discovery in 1989 of Odells 1972 baby stuffed in a suitcase in an old junked car that was bound to be crushed played a key role in how investigators viewed the 2003 case that led to filing multiple murder charges against the defendant.
While the 1989 Baby investigation was never presented to the jury, Lungen said it showed intent in the wake of the gruesome discovery in May of the remains of three more of Odells infants.
Reflecting back 14 years, Lungen said, She once again denied it was her baby until confronted a month later with all the evidence [and] once again admitted, Okay, its my baby, but I didnt do anything. . . . The baby was born stillborn.
We could not disprove that, not knowing she had three more [dead] babies in her closet, said Lungen.
As the case against Odell was hammered out, Lungen said Judge LaBuda ruled that the potential prejudice created by admitting the circumstances surrounding the death of the baby born in 1972 (discovered in 1989) outweighed its probative value.
Lungen said he offered the defense a deal.
Odell could plead guilty to manslaughter in the Babies in Boxes case if she waived the five-year statute of limitations for this charge, but the defense nixed the plea bargain.
Lungen credited the diligence of investigators in three states (AZ, PA & NY) with ultimately bringing us here.
The defense spent a lot of time saying that Diane Odell carried these [three] babies with her because she couldnt part with them, he added. But the reality is she carried them with her because . . . the closer she kept them . . . it was less likely shed get caught.
The 1989 case loomed large over both sides on the whole trial, said Lungen. I feel sorry not for Diane Odell, but for the four babies.
It was murder or nothing, he concluded.