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December 13, 2002

Former foster mother guilty in child-shaking case

From: The News Journal, DE - 13 Dec 2002

Staff reporter

A Penn Acres woman was convicted Thursday of assaulting and endangering a 2 1/2 -month-old foster child who sustained serious brain injuries in her care two years ago.

Stephanie Walls, 35, buried her head in her arms and sobbed after the jury left the Wilmington courtroom. Her husband, Ron Walls, who sat directly behind her in the public gallery, remained composed. Stephanie Walls and her defense attorney, Joe Hurley, would not discuss the verdict.

The panel of seven men and five women deliberated six hours before convicting Walls of felony assault by abuse or neglect, and endangering the welfare of a child. She faces two to 22 years in prison when Judge Fred S. Silverman sentences her Jan. 17. She remains free on bail.

The child, Nicholas Truselo, was born healthy but today is blind, deaf, unable to speak and requires 24-hour nursing care. He has been in that state since being taken to the hospital on Aug. 21, 2000, after he lost consciousness at Walls' home. Walls summoned paramedics when Nicholas began choking. He lapsed into a coma.

Walls told police in a videotaped statement that she shook the baby and dropped him when he would not stop crying on Aug. 17, 2000. One doctor testified that Nicholas might have had a seizure four days after suffering the traumatic shaking and fall. Walls maintained she never intended to harm Nicholas, who was described as a colicky baby by witnesses during the trial.

"I am so glad, so glad," Nicholas' great-grandmother, Eunice LaBerge, said of the verdict when reached by telephone Thursday. She said she hopes Walls gets the maximum sentence because of Nicholas' extensive injuries and Walls' failure to report the shaking incident until after he had lapsed into a coma.

Nicholas was placed with Walls on Aug. 15, 2000, after his father was incarcerated and his mother was hospitalized. Today he lives with another foster family. His foster mother, a nurse, was in court for the verdict. She would not comment.

Nicholas' biological parents were not in court Thursday. His mother, Tina Carroll, could not be located this week. His father, Ralph Truselo, is in Gander Hill prison, according to a prison spokeswoman.

Silverman allowed Walls to remain free on bail while attorneys prepare written arguments on whether the law requires Silverman to revoke her bail before sentencing. That debate will continue until at least Jan. 10, based on filing deadlines for legal briefs.

Deputy Attorney General Christina M. Showalter praised prosecutors and investigators, including New Castle County police Detective Art Lee and prosecutor Josette Manning.

"The state is very pleased and happy the jurors were able to understand the substantial medical evidence that clearly proved these injuries were attributable to no one but the defendant," Showalter said outside court.

Hurley had argued that Nicholas' health problems were the result of injuries inflicted while he was with his biological mother or family friends -- before he arrived in Walls' home. He argued that two state Division of Family Services officials saw Nicholas in the days after the alleged incident in Walls' home and reported no problems.

Nicholas was treated for weeks by an array of machines until a Family Court judge - with the consent of Nicholas' parents and the state - ordered that he be removed from life support by doctors at Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children.

Doctors expected Nicholas to die soon after he was taken off the ventilator, but he survived. He was placed in a new foster home by the state in late 2000.

Walls was to be tried in June, but a mistrial was declared after lawyers were unable to find enough people capable of serving on a jury. Fifty potential jurors out of a pool of 60 asked Silverman to be excused when given a brief description of the case against Walls.

When the trial started earlier this month, Silverman ordered lawyers to curb any discussion or statements that might elicit sympathy or bring the jury to tears. Potential jurors already had started crying when they learned of the subject matter during the jury selection process, he said.

Copyright ©2002, The News Journal.