Judge denies motion for additional medical experts in Safranek case

Need to hire expert testimony is deemed not ‘crucial’ to defense, judge says

Sarah Safranek is escorted into an Ogle County courtroom on Thursday, May 18 for a status hearing. She is charged with the murder of her 7-year-old son Nathaniel.

OREGON – An Ogle County judge denied a defense attorney’s request on Thursday to hire additional medical experts for Sarah Safranek, who is accused of killing her son in 2021.

Safranek, 36, of Oregon, appeared in court May 18 with assistant public defender Michael O’Brien who asked Ogle County Judge John Redington to allow another psychiatrist to evaluate their client’s “mental health issues.”

“There is a long history as to past mental health care,” argued O’Brien. “We believe these mental health issues are directly connected to her defense.”

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.

“There is a long history as to past mental health care. We believe these mental health issues are directly connected to her defense.”

—  Michael O'Brien, assistant public defender

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

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 a $2 million bond.

Ogle County Public Defender Kathleen 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 and “independent review on behalf of the defendant and potentially be used as an expert witness”.

In their motion, they suggested Cara Angelotta of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine be hired arguing that Safranek is indigent and unable to pay any fees needed to secure the services of such an expert.

The motion states that Angelotta charges $500 an hour arguing that a certified psychoanalyst and child/adolescent psychoanalyst is needed to perform the services.

On Thursday, O’Brien said Angelotta would be able to review Safranek’s mental health records and offer an opinion on a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense.

“I can’t tell what this expert is going to be doing,” countered Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock. “This sounds more like a ‘this would be nice’ request, or if they think they need it because there could be an insanity defense.”

In his response to the defense motion, he 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.

“I don’t think we need a vice-chairman from Northwestern University to do this again,” Redington said.

He suggested the first court-appointed expert – Dr. Jayne Braden, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Sycamore – again review Safranek’s history. “If, after you receive that report and can point to something crucial, then I will take up this issue again,” Redington told O’Brien.

The motion also argued there are “factual issues regarding the manner and cause of death” alleged by the prosecution regarding Nathaniel’s autopsy report.

O’Brien agreed that the coroner had determined Nathaniel’s cause of death to be suffocation, but argued that another expert, Shiping Bao, a licensed physician and certified forensic pathologist, be secured in order to address other injuries.

He said Bao is a proven expert witness in cases involving “infant death, suspicious asphyxia death, and accused physical assaults.”

He said another adult had attempted to resuscitate Nathaniel with CPR. “The only other adult was engaged in CPR and that can be a traumatic event,” O’Brien said.

He that other injuries and/or trauma allegedly observed in the autopsy, will be presented directly or indirectly by the state as evidence to attempt to confirm their allegation that the death was caused by the defendant. O’Brien said the other alleged injuries and/or trauma – such as the ruptured liver – could have been caused by CPR.

“We are not experts,” O’Brien argued. “We can not offer an opinion. We do not have the ability to hire someone else.”

Redington said suffocation was listed as the cause of Nathaniel’s death in the indictment. “I don’t see how a review would make a difference, if you are not questioning the cause of death,” Redington said.

Sarah Safranek is escorted into an Ogle County courtroom by Ogle County Deputy Dan Daub on Thursday, May 18 for a motion hearing. She is charged with the murder of her 7-year-old son Nathaniel.

Redington said while information provided by the additional experts may be “helpful” to the defense they were not “crucial.”

“I can’t find that it rises to that level,” Redington said as he denied the motion.

Redington said he would examine’s Braden’s review at Safranek’s next status hearing which was set for July 12 at 1 p.m.

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 oversees production and content of 9 community weeklies and has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.