Judge to rule Tuesday on motions to allow statements in Safranek trial

Sarah Safranek is escorted into an Ogle County courtroom on Monday for a motion hearing by Deputy Dan Daub.

OREGON — An Ogle County judge will render his decision Tuesday on whether he will allow certain statements to be entered as evidence at an August jury trial for an Oregon mother accused of killing her 7-year-old son in February 2021.

Sarah Safranek, 37, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery. She was arrested April 21, 2021, and indicted May 4, 2021. She pleaded not guilty May 6, 2021.

In March, she entered a guilty plea to one count of first-degree murder, but then withdrew that plea in May.

Safranek appeared in court Monday for a day-long motion hearing during which four prosecution witnesses testified that her son told them he was being abused by his mother prior to his death. Defense attorneys countered that the statements were hearsay and should not be allowed as evidence.

Judge John Redington listened to testimony and arguments regarding the motions in limine and said he’d announce his decision at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday after reviewing case law.

Motions in limine are made to determine whether certain evidence may be presented to the jury and are commonly entered and argued before a trial begins, allowing evidentiary questions to be decided by the judge.

Witnesses told the court Monday that Safranek’s son, Nathaniel, had told them his mom had tried to drown him in the bathtub and suffocate him with a couch cushion. They also said Nathaniel had told them she had hit him and once threw a phone at him when he spilled juice.

Assistant State’s Attorney Melissa Voss said their testimony should be allowed because it showed an intent by Safranek to kill her son. “Her intent was to kill or do bodily harm,” argued Voss. “Nathaniel’s statements are about what happened to him. He repeated these accounts to multiple people.”

“The reason he was making these statements was to get help,” Voss said.

But Safranek’s attorneys, Ogle County Public Defenders Kathleen Isley and Michael O’Brien, argued that the witnesses’ testimony was inconsistent, lacked crucial specifics as to when and how the alleged incidents happened, and should not be taken at face value.

“There is a lack of specificity,” argued O’Brien. “The witness we are missing is Nathaniel and that is a due process problem.”

Due process is a legal term that refers to fair treatment for a defendant as their case moves through the court system.

“This is exactly why hearsay exists,” O’Brien argued.

Hearsay statements refer to information received from witnesses that cannot be substantiated through cross examination.

“We do not have the ability to question these statements,” O’Brien said.

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

According to records obtained by Shaw Local News Network in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services visited the 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.

Another pretrial motion hearing is set for June 28 with the jury trial scheduled for Aug. 12.

Redington ruled in November 2022 that Safranek was fit to stand trial after reviewing a mental health evaluation requested by the defense.

Safranek has claimed that she has mental and physical issues that are not being treated properly at the jail and, in a previous motion, her attorneys argued that she was not getting sufficient medical attention while in custody.

Monday’s hearing was temporarily suspended when Redington asked Safranek if she was ill and she replied she was dizzy. When court deputies attempted to escort her to a holding area outside of the courtroom, she fell, but was returned to her feet with the deputies’ help.

Upon her return to the hearing, Isley said the jail’s nurse had examined Safranek and her vitals were normal.

Redington asked Safranek if she was OK to continue with the hearing she said she “would try” and the hearing continued.

Safranek has been held in the Ogle County Correctional Center since her arrest in April 2021.

Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

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