On the morning of March 30, 2007, Raelyn Alene Balfour set out for her work at the Judge Advocate General’s School next to the UVA law school. First she had to drop her husband off at his job at the National Ground Intelligence Center before then taking her 9-month-old son, Bryce, to his babysitter. After dropping her husband off, she received a cell phone call about her nephew’s gambling addiction that lasted through much of her drive to work, diverting her attention from her son. Instead, she went into work and accidentally left her baby in the backseat until about 4pm, when she found him still in the car, dead from heat exposure.
Some 10 months later, Balfour was put on trial for the involuntary manslaughter of her infant, which required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she had acted with callous disregard for the welfare of her baby. To do so, prosecutor Elizabeth Killeen called several witnesses, including a former friend of Balfour’s, Erika Conely.
Around 7:30pm on March 29, Conely had called Balfour to ask if she could come over and watch her young daughter while Conely took the family dog to the vet. While watching over the sleeping girl, Balfour drank one or two beers over the course of three hours, evidence—Killeen argued—of an overall negligent attitude toward children on the part of Balfour.
More damning was Conely’s testimony that Balfour had approached her after being charged to ask Conely not to speak of her drinking that night. On cross-examination, Conely admitted that the two were no longer friends and that she had in fact referred to Balfour as a “baby killer” at one point. The jury was left to ponder.
In closing arguments on January 25, the prosecution argued that Balfour had wantonly and culpably deprived her own son of his right to life. “We have to be able to trust parents to follow a certain standard,” she said.
The defense implored the jury to acquit. “Please don’t be blinded by this beautiful baby boy,” said attorney John Zwerling (whose legacy of Charlottesville defense includes the so-called Corner Killer, Andrew Alston). “Bryce’s death is a tragedy, but not every tragedy is a crime.”
“She was having one of the worst days ever,” Zwerling continued. “Well, it would get worse.” According to him, Balfour had doubled the usual workload at her job, plus babysitting the night before had left her sleep-deprived. “Her tragic flaw was that she couldn’t say ‘no’,” he said. “Her compassion should not be turned into a crime, even though it led to the loss of her son’s life.”
Apparently, the jury agreed with him, returning a not guilty verdict after two hours of deliberation. Much of the courtroom erupted into applause and Balfour broke down in sobs, burying her face in the shoulder of one of her attorneys.
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