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Death may be her only way out


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Death may be her only way out

by Pat Shellenbarger | The Grand Rapids Press

Saturday January 05, 2008, 11:40 PM

AP File Photo

Diane RobinsonGRAND RAPIDS -- On her way to a parole board hearing inside a Jackson prison, Julie Taylor tried to forgive the daycare owner convicted of inflicting brain damage on her daughter, Olivia.

Taylor carried photos showing that Diane Robinson, a woman trusted to care for Olivia, had instead transformed her from a normal, healthy baby to a permanently disabled child requiring around-the-clock care.

Two and a half years into a six- to 15-year prison term, Robinson, terminally ill with lung cancer that has spread to her brain, is asking the state parole board and Gov. Jennifer Granholm to grant her a medical commutation so she can die at home.

"I always pray and ask that I can forgive her," Taylor said. "I was thinking on the way down that maybe I shouldn't speak," which could have been viewed as tacit approval for Robinson's release.

But when Robinson spoke at the hearing and denied -- again -- responsibility for Olivia's injuries, that sealed it for Taylor. She asked the parole board to keep the former owner of a Jenison daycare in prison.

"I'm not an uncompassionate person," said Taylor, 29, a single mother. "Olivia has this brain problem, and now Diane does. Some people called that divine justice. I didn't. But she never shed a tear for Olivia. She's still saying it was an accident. I don't think she should be released, because she made a choice and almost killed my daughter.

"If her sentence ends, Olivia's isn't going to. For Olivia, what kind of justice is that?"

Robinson's adult children say justice does not demand their mother die in prison.

"The only thing I'm going to say is she's human, she has rights, and she deserves appropriate health care," Robinson's daughter, Theresa Lewis, said. "She was not sentenced to death. She doesn't deserve to die there."

Olivia was a normal 5-month-old when Taylor left her at Robinson's daycare in May 2004. Hours later, she was in a coma and fighting for her life in the intensive care unit at Spectrum Health's Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Robinson gave police several explanations, including that she dropped Olivia, then fell on top of her. Olivia's doctors said her injuries -- swelling and bleeding on the brain -- were no accident and only could have been caused by a violent shaking.

In June 2005, Robinson pleaded no contest to first-degree child abuse, but she continued to insist it was an accident.

Ottawa County Circuit Judge Edward Post would not allow her to withdraw the plea, which is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for sentencing. Neither would the state Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court. Post exceeded sentencing guidelines, ordering Robinson imprisoned for six to 15 years.

Disease and decisions

Some months ago, Robinson, serving time in the Huron Valley Women's Facility, complained of pain in her chest, her son, Josh Lewis, said. This past summer, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and on Aug. 3 underwent surgery to remove her left lung. In October, a doctor said the cancer had spread to Robinson's brain, giving her a life expectancy of three to six months.

Notified of Robinson's request for a medical commutation, Ottawa County Prosecutor Ronald Frantz waived his right to insist on a 30-day waiting period before a hearing could be held, but he did not take a position on whether her release should be granted or denied. Neither did Judge Post.

But Assistant Attorney General Charles Schettler Jr. urged the parole board to deny Robinson's request. Frantz said Schettler was not speaking for him.

"I was impressed with the urgency of the situation based on the medical information sent to us," Frantz said. "If that's the case, just as a humanitarian issue, I thought it appropriate that the parole board take a look at it."

At her Dec. 13 hearing at Duane Water's Hospital inside a Jackson prison, Robinson, 51, was frail and bald due to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The room was packed with members of both families. Parole Board chairwoman Barbara Sampson listened to nearly two hours of testimony.

A transcript of the hearing is being circulated to all 10 members of the parole board, which will make a recommendation to Granholm, likely within the next couple of weeks, Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said.

Robinson's children were reluctant to discuss their mother's request, not wanting to jeopardize her chances for a medical commutation. Asked why she should be released, her 34-year-old son, Josh, said: "Because she's my ma."

'A real tragedy'

At her Plainfield Township home, Julie Taylor awaits that decision and spends most of her time caring for Olivia. She quit her job as a customer service representative with a waste disposal firm so she can take Olivia to eight therapy sessions a week and countless appointments with neurologists, ophthalmologists, orthopedists and other doctors.

Courtesy Photo

Now: Olivia Taylor, 4, is legally blind and unable to walk, feed herself or say more than a few words. She attends special classes at Ken-O-Sha school, where this photo recently was taken.Olivia has had four brain surgeries and likely faces more, her mother said.

Within the past year, she has learned to sit up but cannot lift her arms above her head.

Blind, unable to walk, feed herself or say more than a few words, Olivia stirred awake in a bedroom and cried for her mother.

"I've been told she'll never work, never be able to live independently," Taylor said.

Robinson's attorney, Charles Chamberlain Jr., called it "a real tragedy for both families.

"You have a dying person and a seriously disabled child," he said.

"It's undisputed that she (Robinson) is going to die soon. I don't think it's rubbing salt in a deep wound to let her die in a humane way."

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