Defense asks for another continuance in case of 7-year-old’s death, pending medical review and DCFS report

Sarah Safranek enters an Ogle County court room on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023 for a status hearing. She is charged with killing her  7-year-old son, Nathaniel.

OREGON – Defense attorneys for an Oregon woman accused of killing her 7-year-old son in 2021 have been granted another continuance as they wait for a written medical review of their client’s mental health and Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) records.

Sarah Safranek, 36, appeared via video conference from the Ogle County Correctional Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13 as her attorneys, Ogle County public defenders Kathryn Isley and Michael O’Brien along with Assistant State’s Attorney Matthew Leisten, appeared before Judge John Redington for a status hearing.

Isely and O’Brien told Redington that they had yet to receive reports from DCFS as well as a written report from court-appointed expert Dr. Jayne Braden, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Sycamore, who recently reviewed Safranek’s history of “mental health issues”.

“We have spoken to Dr. Braden, but we do not have a written report,” said Isley asking for a continuance.

Redington agreed to continue the hearing to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25. Leisten did not object to the continuance.

Safranek has pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery for the suffocation death of her 7-year-old son, Nathaniel Burton, in February 2021. An autopsy showed the boy also suffered a ruptured liver.

Nathaniel, a first grade student at Oregon Elementary School, was found unresponsive and not breathing about 2:30 a.m. Feb. 17, 2021, in his bed at his home in the 400 block of South 10th Street. He was pronounced dead later that day at KSB Hospital in Dixon.

Safranek was arrested two months later, April 21, and indicted May 4, 2021. She pleaded not guilty May 6, 2021, and remains in the Ogle County Correctional Center on $2 million bond.

Earlier this year, Redington denied O’Brien’s request to hire additional medical experts for Safranek, despite his argument that she has “a long history as to past mental health care” and those health issues are “directly connected to her defense.”

Isley and O’Brien filed a motion in March saying Safranek’s right to due process required the appointment of and/or use of one or more experts to review certain discovery materials and/or provide testimony.

They asked the court approve an additional expert to “review and evaluate mental health records” of Safranek, including her condition at the time of the alleged crime.

They argued extensive mental health records were provided by the state and revealed a “substantial history of mental health issues, mental illness and related services”.

Isley and O’Brien said they believe the prosecution will present those records – whether directly or indirectly – to prove Safranek committed the alleged crimes and asked Redington allow another expert to be hired to provide an “independent review on behalf of the defendant and potentially be used as an expert witness”.

In his response to the defense motion, Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock said an indigent defendant is not entitled to an expert “merely because the expert would be helpful, valuable, or important to the defense.”

Redington agreed, saying case law cited in the motion requires any additional hiring of experts be “crucial” to the client’s defense. He said Safranek had already been evaluated by a court-appointed expert who looked at her mental health history. He suggested the first court-appointed expert, Braden, again review Safranek’s history.

On Nov. 3, 2022, Redington ruled Safranek fit to stand trial after reviewing a mental health evaluation requested by the defense.

According to records obtained by Shaw Local News Network in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of Children and Family Services had visited the Safranek/Burton household about a dozen times over two years, following up on five reports of suspected abuse and neglect.

Each time, DCFS closed the case after finding no indications of parental wrongdoing.

Nathaniel was 4 when the allegations first surfaced.

Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.