Jury clears dad in tot's kidnapping

By Anita Perkins
Eagle-Tribune Writer
Friday, May 24, 2002

HAVERHILL -- After deliberating for about an hour yesterday, an all-male jury found Brian J. Meuse not guilty of kidnapping his daughter.

Lawyer Barbara C. Johnson (left) of Andover, Brian J. Meuse, and his parents -- Janice M. and Owen A. Meuse (background) of Haverhill -- celebrate his acquittal following a five-day trial in Haverhill District Court. The bell and scales of justice became symbols of Johnson's challenge to get Meuse a fair trial after their defense was rejected by Judge Allen G. Swan.

The Haverhill man, who had the support of fatherhood rights activists throughout the trial, believes he was "saved by the bell."

Meuse had planned during the trial to show he had no other choice but to take his then 14-month-old daughter for essential medical treatment not provided by her mother.

But before the five-day trial started, Haverhill District Court Judge Allen G. Swan threw out Meuse's defense on grounds that there was some debate over the condition of the child. In her opening arguments, Barbara C. Johnson, Meuse's lawyer, told the eight jurors a little bell should go off in their heads every time the judge sustains an objection from the prosecutor.

Meuse, who was charged with taking his daughter Marissa on an illegal six-month odyssey across the country, said the six jurors -- a man and woman were chosen as alternates -- saw through all of the legal wranglings.

"They were definitely listening through the whole trial," Meuse said following the verdict.

Meuse was arrested in Oklahoma last March after being spotted by two women who identified him from a wanted poster in a Wal-Mart. He says he took Marissa, who was living with her mother, Susan B. Pane, in Florida, in order to get medical treatment for the child's developmental problems. Meuse argued that Pane's alleged drug abuse led to the child's neglect. Pane, who had temporary custody of Marissa at the time, has consistently denied those allegations.

Johnson, who challenged the judge's decision by going ahead with her original defense, praised the jury for paying attention to the often tedious testimony. Barred from calling scheduled medical experts to discuss the child's medical problems, Johnson said she successfully got witnesses to paint a full picture for the jury.

"They should never have brought this case. There was no crime (committed) in Massachusetts," she said. "The jury knew no crime occurred here."

Johnson said she is uncertain if having an all-male jury made a difference in the outcome. She said "the facts were on our side."

When the charges were brought against Meuse Oct. 8, 2000, he had already left the state, Johnson said, adding she plans to challenge the "abuse of process" in federal court.

As Pane waited for the jury to return with a verdict, she told The Eagle-Tribune that a probate judge gave her custody of Marissa. She also stressed that Marissa has never had any significant medical problems.

"It was all lies," Pane said, as she showed a photo of a smiling 2-year-old on a button, as well as a doll and toy dog bone Marissa gave her for good luck. Pane kept the items with her during the trial.

Pane, 35, said Marissa now performs gymnastics, including cartwheels and somersaults without any difficulty, and speaks well enough for people to think she is older than 24 months. Pane also wore a locket containing a photo of herself and Marissa that she has worn since Marissa was taken by her father.

"The most important thing is my daughter," she said, adding that coming to Haverhill for the trial is the first time she has been away from her daughter overnight since police found her in Oklahoma.

Assistant District Attorney John V. Apruzzese had only one comment about the case.

"The jury has spoken," he said.

Meuse and his parents, Janice M. and Owen A. Meuse, hugged and screamed in relief outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced. The family, which has been involved in fighting the custody dispute and kidnapping charges, said they have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Owen Meuse said he was afraid that the case might end up with a hung jury because of the judge's decision to keep out most of the defense's witnesses.

"I was very worried," he said, crediting the jury with being very attentive.

The judge also praised jurors for their patience throughout the lengthy trial.

"It's just short of being drafted into military service and going into combat," he told the jury.

A drained-looking Janice Meuse said she hopes to start eating and sleeping now that the trial is behind them. She said the strain and stress of months of preparation and a week of courtroom appearances left her 35 pounds lighter.

"I wore these pants when I got married," she said, laughing.

Brian Meuse said he is now ready to resume his fight for custody of Marissa. Johnson said there are a few legal hurdles they have to overcome before asking for full custody. Meuse has not seen Marissa since his arrest.

Meuse is also hoping police will arrest Pane for violating a restraining order he took out against her in October 1999. Johnson filed a complaint Wednesday night.

The complaint being reviewed by police and the Essex County District Attorney followed testimony from Captain Donald B. Thompson who acknowledged the expired order giving Meuse temporary custody of his now 2-year-old daughter still falls within the state's statute of limitations.

Meuse said Thompson admitted that Pane violated the order in 1999 by taking the child out of the state. But Thompson said he never made that acknowledgement on the stand. He said police have to check and see whether a probate court order in effect at the same time overrides a district court restraining order.

"There were other issues involved," Thompson said, referring to the custody case in a separate court.

Meuse has consistently said Pane violated the 1999 restraining order, giving Meuse temporary custody. The order was eventually served on Pane at her mother's Florida home Nov. 11, 1999. Police there made several attempts to serve the order following Pane's departure from Haverhill on Oct. 1, 1999, according to court testimony.

Meuse and Johnson fault Haverhill Police for failing to arrest Pane after she took the child out of Massachusetts. Pane had appeared in Haverhill District Court several times after the order was still in effect, but police never enforced the order, Meuse said.

Pane said a judge should not have signed the order because it was taken out after she left Massachusetts Oct. 1, 1999.

"The only reason the judge signed was because the judge thought I was still living with him," she said during a break in the trial.

Copyrightę 2002 Eagle-Tribune Publishing.