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MANCHESTER

'It's unfathomable'

Family of beaten boy agonizes over lag in justice system

The little boy's grandmother, the fuel driving this engine, went to court this month, searching for answers and justice.

She brought four family members with her, plus plenty of grit. She sat for 2½ hours, waiting, hoping, wondering. She watched clerks and attorneys move through the swinging wooden door, uneasy about the young man and his parents sitting nearby, across the carpeted aisle.

"I thought this would have a smoother outcome," the grandmother, Victoria Cronin, whispered in Hillsborough County Superior Court, Courtroom No. 4. "I thought he would be arrested right away, not nearly a year later. To me, it's unfathomable. The justice system is failing in a lot of ways."

It's failing, Cronin says, because investigators took nearly nine months to indict 18-year-old Joseph Smith of Manchester, charged with two counts of first-degree assault in the beating of his girlfriend's son. The boy, according to medical reports and the indictment, suffered brain damage, possibly permanent, and a fractured pelvis.

It's failing, Cronin points out, because the arraignment on June 15 was eventually postponed after the two sides couldn't agree on the amount of money for bail.

And it's failing, Cronin claims, because her daughter (the boy's mother) and another woman in a separate incident have been attacked, allegedly by Smith, while officials worked to charge him in the boy's beating.

Meanwhile, Smith was convicted of domestic assault against a third woman two years ago.

"I think the justice system is slow on working this, knowing he already has a conviction for domestic violence and also a current (charge)," Cronin's brother, Donald Stratton of Manchester, said outside the courthouse after the bail hearing was postponed. "He's a danger to society. He shouldn't be out."

The boy's father, Francis Edwards, and paternal grandmother, Marcia Edwards, have custody of the child in Spencer, Mass.

Cronin doesn't know if her daughter and Smith, who is not the boy's father, are still dating. She's had no contact with her daughter since Christmas, when she sent Cronin a locket and photo of her son.

But that hasn't stopped this 37-year-old buzz saw from fighting to put Smith away for allegedly beating her grandson. She works part time at a Sears in Shrewsbury, Mass., her soft voice and quick smile belying her fierce drive to see this case through.

"This little boy nearly died," Cronin says. "I don't understand why it takes so long for a grand jury. I'm being a pain in the butt. I'm a nightmare."

She hounds Assistant County Attorney Karen Gorham every chance she gets. She hounds victim/witness advocate Kim Fillmore when she's not hounding Gorham. She hounds Manchester Detective Richard Nanan, the lead investigator in the case.

She's even written to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who told her to hound the investigators working the case.

"I will keep your grandson in my thoughts and prayers, and wish him a full recovery," Ayotte wrote last month.

The alleged assault occurred in September, two months after the boy's mother and Smith began dating, and a week after the boy's third birthday.

The boy was brought to Children's Hospital in Boston, where he stayed for a month.

The indictment says the boy suffered a traumatic brain injury; retinal hemorrhage; a fractured pelvis; bruising to both eyes; bruising to his chin, left temple and abdomen; abrasions on his upper lip; and a blister or burn on his scrotum.

"From what we understood, an exercise machine fell on (the boy), which if you saw my grandson, he's this tiny little thing," said Marcia Edwards, the other grandmother. "I don't see an exercise machine or whatever falling on him to be breaking his pelvic bone and causing the brain injury."

"He was a very sick little boy," Cronin added. "He barely made it through."

What frustrates Cronin is that a medical report from the Heywood Rehabilitation Center in Gardner, Mass., stated five months before the indictment that the boy's injuries were "non-accidental."

Meanwhile, last month, Smith was charged with hitting a woman in the face and pushing her head into a wall. He had been accused of assaulting the boy's mother last February, but she didn't attend a hearing recently in Manchester's district court and charges were dropped.

"She's mad at me," Cronin said, referring to her estranged daughter. "She defended him after (the incident with the boy). I don't know if she still defends him or not after he hurt her."

She also doesn't know why Smith was never arrested and why he isn't being held on bail.

Gorham said by email that the Smith case was a direct indictment, meaning the police referred it to her office "in lieu of filing a complaint in District Court. Therefore, no arrest. With a direct indictment, the first hearing is the arraignment."

Smith waived arraignment nine days ago, Gorham wrote, adding that the hearing was postponed until July 5 because the defense and prosecution could not agree on bail.

Beyond those facts, Gorham would not comment on the lengthy process that is driving Cronin nuts.

Nanan, of the Manchester Police Department, said small children with serious injuries often will not be called as witnesses. That slows things down.

"This is typical of big cases like this and cases where you don't have answers right in front of you," Nanan said. "Medical facts take time to gather, you have multiple interviews, and those things take time. And it's not the only case we're working at the same time."

Asked if the justice system sometimes frustrates him, Nanan said, "It does, but it's the process, and it's unfortunately what we have to deal with."

Cronin refuses to deal with this passively. She brought four family members to the recent bail hearing in Manchester, driving 70 miles from her home in Connecticut to be there. Marcia and Francis Edwards drove from Spencer, Mass., 80 miles away.

When the clerk announced that the bail hearing had been postponed, Smith and his parents moved quickly from the courthouse.

(When the Monitor called seeking comment, Smith's mother, Kelly Smith, said by phone she'd leave a message for her son but didn't expect him to return the call).

Cronin and her troops gathered outside on the sidewalk, crying about their frustration, bewildered by events since last fall and smiling when the topic turned to the boy.

They say he's a funny little boy who liked to wrestle with Manchester's Jacqueline Allen, his great-grandmother.

"He'd try to body slam me," Allen said. "I used to let him do it."

His wrestling career is on hold. The boy, the family says, is feeling better, but he wears a brace on one leg, walks with a limp and has lost strength in his right arm.

They want someone held accountable for that.

"It's amazing to me," Cronin said, "how slow justice really is."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @RayDuckler.)