At about 9 p.m., on March 6, 1985, Margaret Earle left her apartment in Brockton, Massachusetts, and went upstairs to celebrate her 21st birthday with a friend. Earle left her 21-month old daughter from a prior relationship, Rachelle Pelletier, in the care of her live-in boyfriend, Michael Burnham.
Earle’s cousin, Raymond Gaffney, who also lived with Earle and Burnham, came home around 9:30 p.m. and found Burnham holding Rachelle, although she was usually in bed by 8 p.m. The following morning, Gaffney was awakened by Rachelle crying in her bed. He woke Earle and told her that Rachelle appeared ill, then changed her diaper, gave her a bottle and left for work with Burnham.
When Rachelle vomited, Earle called her doctor, but the doctor was not in. The doctor’s assistant said the flu was going around and advised Earle to give Rachelle clear liquids. When Rachelle worsened and continued to vomit, Earle called the doctor’s office again, but could not get through. Earle left her daughter with a babysitter to go to the pharmacy. While she was out, the babysitter called 911, but by the time paramedics brought Rachelle to the hospital she was dead.
An autopsy disclosed two fractured ribs, internal bleeding and a severed small intestine. As a result, peritonitis set in and was the cause of death. Authorities believed the injury was the result of intentional physical abuse and opened a death investigation.
Gaffney, Burnham and Earle were questioned by police, but all said they had no idea what happened to Rachelle. The investigation went cold. Earle and Burnham remained together, though they did not marry, and had a child together. Several years later, they parted.
In July 1994, Burnham married another woman and moved to Virginia. The new relationship was marred by heavy drinking by both of them. On one occasion, when Burnham’s new wife threatened to call the police, he threatened to kill her and said he had killed before. He explained that he was angry about having to babysit a child and when the child would not stop crying, he threw her on the floor and stomped on her abdomen. Burnham threatened to kill his new wife if she ever told anyone.
Burnham and his new wife divorced in 1996. During their time together, his ex-wife later said, she tried unsuccessfully to tell police of Burnham’s statements about killing Rachelle.
In November 2001, Burnham dialed 911 from a public telephone in Brockton and admitted committing a murder at 89 Highland Street in Brockton, which was where he and Earle lived at the time of Rachelle’s death. Burnham also made a confession to a support group for domestic violence offenders.
The police issued an arrest warrant for Burnham on May 3, 2002. He was arrested on July 22, 2002, when he was found hiding in the crawl space of a house in Holbrook, Massachusetts, and charged with first degree murder. On June 6, 2002, Earle was indicted on a charge of first degree murder for failing to promptly seek medical treatment for Rachelle.
Earle and Burnham were tried separately. Earle went on trial first in October of 2005 in Plymouth County Superior Court. The prosecution claimed that Earle knew what Burnham had done and not only protected him, but failed to promptly get Rachelle medical treatment that could have saved the toddler’s life.
A detective testified that when Earle was interviewed, she denied knowing what Burnham had done. Earle told the officer that she had called her doctor when Rachelle appeared sick, but her doctor was not in. The detective testified that Earle said that a nurse assistant told her Rachelle probably had the flu and advised Earle to give Rachelle ginger ale or other clear liquids.
The prosecution told the jury that phone records did not reveal any calls from Earle’s apartment to any doctor’s office and argued that Earle had lied to the police. On October 14, 2005, Earle was convicted of second degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison.
Burnham was convicted of first degree murder a few weeks later and sentenced to life in prison.
Attorney Michael Schneider was appointed to handle Earle’s appeal and filed a motion for a new trial based on a sworn statement from Burnham that he was responsible for Rachelle’s injuries and that Earle never knew what really happened.
Burnham said that Rachelle kept crying and “something inside just snapped. I got angry for a split second and I stepped down hard on Rachelle’s stomach. She lost her breath and stopped crying. As soon as I did this, I felt bad. I thought I had just knocked the wind out of her (and) did not think I had hurt her at all.”
Burnham said he could not bring himself to admit the truth before. He said he drank and used drugs to try to forget what he had done and attempted suicide twice.
Schneider also discovered that Earle’s trial attorney had failed to uncover evidence of the second phone call to the doctor’s office—the call that showed Earle’s continuing efforts to get medical advice. The motion for a new trial was denied.
On November 18, 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed Earle’s conviction, on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that she failed to seek medical help for Rachelle and that a lay person would not have been able to tell that Rachelle was close to death. The case was dismissed and Earle was released.
In May 2008, Burnham’s conviction was upheld on appeal by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
– Maurice Possley