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Jury finds mother guilty of drowning son in hotel bathtub

Sharon Flanagan, 34, was arrested on July 2, 2012, and charged with attempted homicide, aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.

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Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 11:54 a.m.
 

Sharon Flanagan burst into tears and pleaded with the judge on Friday as the jury foreman read aloud her conviction of first-degree murder in the drowning death of her 2-year-old son in a hotel bathtub.

“Please, please, I'll serve any sentence, but I can't be abused in that prison,” said Flanagan, 34, of Inwood, W.Va. “Please, Judge Manning.”

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning had two Allegheny County sheriff's deputies remove Flanagan from the courtroom in handcuffs. Allegheny County Sheriff's Office Lt. Jack Kearney said Flanagan was “ranting incoherent” in the hallway. She will be sentenced on Dec. 9.

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about five hours before returning the verdict at 4:04 p.m. Before the trial began, Flanagan turned down an offer from the district attorney's office to plead guilty to third-degree murder and serve 20 to 40 years in prison.

Flanagan's trial in the July 6, 2012, death of her son Steven began on Tuesday. He died in Children's Hospital five days after his mother found him lying facedown, unresponsive, in a bathtub in Room 603 of Best Western Parkway Center Inn in Green Tree.

“I don't agree with it, but I respect (the verdict),” said Flanagan's defense attorney, Blaine Jones III. “This was a very emotionally charged case — we had grown men come to the table and say they couldn't (serve on the jury). At the end of the day, the jurors had difficulty separating their feelings of a 2-year-old drowning to death and the law.

“I think any of us would be destroyed,” Jones said of his client's outburst. “It's life without the possibility of parole. She maintains she did not do this. The physical evidence is on her side.”

Flanagan's relatives declined to comment, as did the child's father, also named Steven Flanagan. Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini declined comment after the sentencing. Jurors also declined comment.

Earlier Friday, Jones told jurors during his closing argument that Flanagan couldn't have drowned her child.

Detectives didn't observe any marks on Flanagan's arms, and an autopsy of the boy showed no signs of trauma, he said.

“Forcibly drowning someone is an extremely violent act. There are no marks indicating he was held down. In the court of public opinion, she was guilty. But this is a court of law. Sometimes accidents happen. The evidence doesn't say there's anything more,” Jones said.

Pellegrini said Flanagan should have pulled her son out of the tub as soon as she saw him and that the boy wouldn't have fought back because he trusted his mother.

“What would you do if you found your child face down in a tub? A small amount of water in the airways can stop the heart of a 2-year-old,” she said. “He isn't going to resist her. She is the one he believes would never hurt him.”

Flanagan initially told investigators she attempted to save the boy from drowning but said an unexplained force was pulling him under the water. On Thursday, Flanagan testified she pulled the plug and ran for help but did not touch her son.

She said she lied to investigators because she did not want her ex-husband, whom she accused of molesting the boy, to gain custody if she admitted to having left him unattended in the bathroom.

“Unfortunately, she froze,” Jones said. “Ms. Flanagan was upset. She was distraught. She was in a panic. She couldn't formulate the thought. ... It's easy to sit here in this courtroom and say this is what we would have done.”

Pellegrini said the abuse allegations against the boy's father were investigated and found to be untrue. He paced around the Allegheny County courthouse during jury deliberations and cried into a tissue as he left the courtroom.

Pellegrini highlighted evidence that detectives discovered on Flanagan's computer related to searches for Casey Anthony and “leading cause of toddler death.” Anthony was acquitted in 2011 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter in a Florida case that drew national attention.

“Who looks on the Internet for the leading causes of toddler death? Who does that?” Pellegrini asked before answering her own question: “Someone planning to murder their child.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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