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Accused killer takes plea deal

Jim Curtis is expected to spend nearly 14 years in prison in the death of a medically troubled boy that he had sought to adopt.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Jim Curtis, accused of killing a 3-year-old Connecticut foster child he planned to adopt, pleaded guilty to manslaughter Friday in a deal with prosecutors that calls for him to spend nearly 14 years in prison.

Curtis, 26, of New Port Richey was under indictment for first-degree murder and faced a possible death sentence for wrapping Alex Boucher so tightly in a blanket last September that the boy died of asphyxiation.

The case still was in the early stages -- attorneys had not even taken depositions -- but prosecutors acknowledged that issues raised by the defense since the indictment led them to agree to the reduced charge. Defense attorney Bob Attridge repeatedly had attacked the state's case in previous court hearings, arguing that the autopsy report doesn't conclusively explain how Alex died and suggesting that Curtis was tricked into giving a statement to police.

"Evidence has come out that makes the case more suitable to manslaughter than murder one," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis. "We felt this was a reasonable disposition."

Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge William Webb accepted the plea deal, which calls for Curtis to serve 13.8 years in prison, and set a formal sentencing for March 23 to give Alex's former foster mother a chance to address the court.

Under state sentencing guidelines, Curtis scored between 9 and 15 years in prison.

Attridge said his client decided to enter the plea not only to avoid the death penalty but also because "the state probably had a case where a jury could easily find him guilty of manslaughter."

In contrast to the highly charged, adversarial atmosphere of previous court hearings, Friday's proceedings were somber and businesslike.

Attridge walked into court 15 minutes early Friday, picked up an empty plea form and sat down in the jury box beside a shackled Curtis. Bailiffs uncuffed Curtis' hands so he could sign the paperwork.

Curtis, sporting a goatee and a shaved head, sat expressionless as Attridge explained to the judge that his client understood he was waiving his right to depose witnesses and further investigate the state's evidence.

Curtis, who is taking medication for depression, said little, other than to quietly answer "Yes, sir" to questions from the judge about whether he understood and agreed with what was happening.

Shock waves from the high-profile case reached Connecticut, where Alex's death led to massive reforms in that state's child welfare agency.

Alex was a ward of Connecticut and was placed shortly after his birth with his aunt, Michelle Harmon, in Maine.

But early last year, Harmon contacted the Connecticut Department of Children and Families and said she no longer could serve as foster mother for Alex, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, hemophilia and meningitis.

Curtis and his wife, Jennifer, knew Harmon from when the couple lived in Maine, and they expressed interest in adopting Alex.

But before completing the required background checks and home studies, Connecticut DCF workers allowed the Curtises, who had no children of their own, to bring Alex to Florida -- in violation of agency policy and the federal regulations that govern out-of-state placements of children.

Six days after he arrived in New Port Richey, Alex was dead.

An internal investigation by Connecticut DCF resulted in the suspension of four employees and led Gov. John G. Rowland to propose breaking up the agency.

"The system has screwed this little boy so bad. . . . This is not justice, but justice won't bring Alex back," Harmon said of Friday's plea deal.

Curtis, in an interview with New Port Richey detectives, admitted wrapping Alex in a blanket in his apartment on Sept. 25, but said he was only trying to prevent the boy from getting out of bed.

"I didn't think he would die," Curtis said. "I didn't think it would kill him."

Before Friday's plea, Attridge was gearing up to argue that Curtis's statement should be thrown out because his client was coerced into waiving his rights to an attorney. Curtis initially asked for an attorney but later agreed to talk to detectives after his wife told him she would be arrested unless he gave a statement. Attridge argued that police used Jennifer Curtis as a pawn to get his client to cooperate.

Attridge, in pre-trial hearings earlier this year, also attacked the findings of Dr. Marie Hansen, the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Alex. Hansen, under questioning from Attridge, admitted that she couldn't rule out the possibility that Alex's myriad health problems contributed to his death.

But on Friday, those potential cracks in the state's case took a back seat to reality, Attridge said.

"We had to look at the fact that (Curtis) was alone with the child, the child died, and the medical examiner found that the child died of asphyxiation because he was wrapped in a blanket," Attridge said.

"We talked about it and decided this was the best thing to do."

- Hartford Courant staff writer Elizabeth Hamilton contributed to this report.

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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