Judge rules on statements in Safranek case

Ruling will allow some statements made by 7-year-old before his death to be entered into evidence

Sarah Safranek (right) sits with Ogle County Public Defender Michael O'Brien during a Tuesday, June 18, 2024 court hearing in the Ogle County Judicial Center.

OREGON – An Ogle County judge ruled Tuesday that some statements a 7-year-old made about alleged abuses before his death in 2021 can be entered as evidence while others cannot when his mother stands trial in August for killing him.

Sarah Safranek, 37, the mother of Nathaniel Burton, is accused of killing him in the family’s Oregon home in February 2021. She 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 she withdrew that plea in May.

Safranek appeared in court Monday for a daylong motion hearing during which four prosecution witnesses testified that her son, before his death, told them that he was being abused by his mother. 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 reviewed case law before rendering his decision Tuesday afternoon.

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. Motions in limine in the Safranek case have been sealed and are not viewable to the public.

“The court finds that all statements in question are not ‘testimonial’ in nature and, therefore, are not violative of the defendant’s confrontation clause rights under the United States and Illinois constitutions,” Redington said in the order.

Witnesses told the court Monday that Nathaniel told them his mom had tried to drown him in the bathtub and suffocate him with a couch cushion. They also said Nathaniel told them that 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,” Voss argued. “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.”

Safranek’s attorneys, Ogle County Public Defenders Kathleen Isley and Michael O’Brien, argued that the witnesses’ testimonies were 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,” O’Brien argued. “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.

In his decision, Redington said statements made to two Dixon residents with whom Nathaniel had stayed would be allowed as evidence in the trial, including his claims that his mom tried drowning him when he was taking a bath and had tried to choke him in two other incidents.

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 in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services visited the house 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, and the jury trial is 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 whether she was ill, and she replied that she was dizzy. When court deputies tried 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. She appeared in court for Tuesday’s hearing without any incident.

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.