Witnesses say there seemed something wrong with Ethan Hershey before the infant died in the care of his accused step-grandmother.
Sherri Chambers said that she saw Ethan Hershey at Wal-Mart in Hopewell on three occasions in fall 2005, and each time she felt like something wasn't right.
Chambers said Ethan, then 3 months old, didn't respond to her while she tried playing with him in the store. "I tried talking to him, like I do with my kids, and he never really looked at me," she said.
Sheri Cummings saw the infant around the same time and made the same observation. Her 4-year-old daughter tried engaging Ethan with a rattle while he was sitting in a bouncy chair in his step-grandmother's Gorham home. "He didn't even respond," she said.
Chambers and Cummings were among several witnesses called by defense attorney Lawrence Andolina to testify in Ontario County Court Thursday in the trial of Ethan's step-grandmother, Barbara Hershey. She is charged with second-degree manslaughter for allegedly causing Ethan's death by shaking him while caring for him in her home on South Street in Gorham on Oct. 25, 2005.
In calling his first witnesses to testify, Andolina set out to prove two things: that Ethan may have had an undiagnosed medical condition, and that his client, Hershey is of good moral character.
All told, Andolina said he was prepared to call 15 character witnesses to the stand, but District Attorney R. Michael Tantillo protested after the fourth such witness testified. Judge Frederick Reed sided with Tantillo, allowing Andolina only one more character witness.
Daye Parsons was one of those witnesses. She testified that her children went to day-care along with Ethan and his sister, Anna, at Hershey's home at the time of the alleged incident. She said she noticed that Ethan seemed to have trouble focusing on anyone.
"You'd talk to him and he'd look away," she said, adding that he also seemed to have trouble holding up his head.
Trina Semans, who also had a child in Hershey's care in the fall of 2005, testified that when she saw Ethan on Oct. 20 "he had, like a blank stare."
Tantillo pointed out, however, that Ethan had a well-child visit with his Canandaigua pediatrician the day before, on Oct. 19, and was found to be in good health, physically and developmentally. That doctor, Douglas Alling, was among the prosecution's last witnesses Wednesday.
Tantillo also highlighted the fact that none of those who said they saw problems with Ethan ever reported their concerns to his father or mother, who is an experienced nurse.
The prosecutor's last witness took the stand Thursday morning. It was a pathologist from the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office in Rochester who said that Ethan's injuries were caused by forceful shaking.
That doctor, Scott LaPlant, told jurors that the bleeding in Ethan's brain and retinas was similar to the type of injury he would see had the infant fallen from a three-story building or been in a car that crashed at 30 mph or faster. Likewise, doctors who cared for Ethan at Golisano Children's Hospital at Strong before his death Nov. 15, 2005 testified that he died as a result of what's known as shaken-baby syndrome.
Ethan's parents, Amanda and David Hershey, testified Tuesday that their son was fussier than their older daughter and prone to bouts of unexplained crying. They said they do not, however, believe that Barbara Hershey shook or otherwise hurt Ethan.
Before presenting his first witnesses Thursday, Andolina formally asked Reed to dismiss the manslaughter charge — a routine move by defense attorneys in major criminal cases. Reed has yet to decide on the motion.
The trial resumes at 12:30 p.m. today and is expected to wrap up with closing arguments late Monday or early Tuesday. If convicted, Hershey faces a maximum of five to 15 years in state prison.
Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.