PITTSBURGH (AP) — A West Virginia woman charged with drowning her 2-year-old son in a suburban Pittsburgh hotel bathtub claimed the boy became stuck in the tub, but couldn't explain how that happened or why she was unable to pull him out safely, a homicide detective testified Wednesday.
Sharon Flanagan, 34, of Inwood, W.Va., is on trial on charges of criminal homicide, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment in the death of her son, Steven, last July.
Defense attorney Blaine Jones maintains the boy's drowning was an accident, but Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini is seeking a conviction for first-degree — or premeditated — murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Pellegrini told jurors in opening statements Tuesday that Flanagan had used her computer to search for the topics "leading cause of toddler death" and "why is Casey Anthony so popular?" weeks before the child died, and that Flanagan killed the boy to get back at her husband during a bitter divorce. Anthony is the Orlando, Fla., woman acquitted in July 2011 of charges she killed her 2-year-old daughter after the girl's remains were found in a trash bag. Anthony's defense claimed the girl, instead, accidentally drowned in a swimming pool.
Testimony about the web searches was expected later Wednesday. Earlier testimony came from county homicide Detective Michael Feeney, and two other investigators who responded to the Best Western hotel in Green Tree the evening of July 1, 2012.
Feeney interviewed Flanagan at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh that night, and said she couldn't explain how the boy got stuck in the tub. The boy died there five days later.
Flanagan told police she made the three-hour, 200-mile drive to Pittsburgh so she could take her son to a nearby waterpark. After arriving at the hotel about 6 p.m., she decided to let the boy "swim" in the room's bathtub after he tired of watching cartoons.
Flanagan let the boy wear his rubber shoes so he could get into and out of the tub by himself. She also let him climb on a towel bar that was part of the molded tub assembly — something she normally wouldn't let him do — because she wanted "Baby Steven to like her more," Feeney testified.
At some point, Flanagan told the detective the boy "was slipping and his shoe got caught" — though she couldn't explain where it got caught — and that she couldn't keep his head above water in the tub.
She started by "holding his chin" and then was "pulling on his arms and legs, but was unable to free him from the water," Feeney testified.
Flanagan told police she briefly left the boy, who weighed about 35 pounds, while she grabbed a "back brace" from another part of the room. Feeney described the brace as similar to an elastic bandage, even though Flanagan's never been diagnosed with a back injury that he's aware of, Feeney said.
She returned and found the boy with "no life — lifeless," Feeney said.
The woman said she eventually unplugged the tub, though she couldn't remember how she did that, but said drainage was slowed by a wash cloth and a "do not disturb" placard that blocked the drain. Investigators didn't find the placard in the tub, but did find a wash cloth, with blood on it that investigators have yet to explain.