MONTICELLO — After a four-day trial, it took a six-person Piatt County jury one hour Thursday to find Christie Brown guilty of criminal neglect of her own brother and animal cruelty.
The neglect charges stemmed from the Aug. 20, 2018, death of Ronald Blankenship, 64, who shared and co-owned a Monticello home with Brown, 64.
He was found dead in his bedroom surrounded by used adult diapers, overflowing garbage bags and other filth that prosecutors said contributed to his death.
Two dogs were also found on an enclosed porch in such poor shape that both were euthanized.
Judge Gary Webber presided over the trial.
Among the six prosecution witnesses were medical professionals who said the conditions inside the home — deemed “deplorable” by officers responding after Mr. Blankenship's death — made it easier for him to catch ailments, including four different kinds of foreign bacteria found in his stomach at autopsy.
“The main cause of death was bronchial pneumonia due to chronic bronchitis,” said Dr. Scott Denton, the Bloomington forensic pathologist who conducted Mr. Blankenship’s autopsy. Denton also listed “medical neglect” as a contributing factor in his death.
Mr. Blankenship's physician, Dr. Steven Sparenberg, said his patient got pneumonia easily, but that a long-term tracheotomy bypassed usual methods of a body's defense, giving bacteria a more direct route into his body.
“It was important the environment around that (tracheotomy) ... be kept clean,” Assistant State's Attorney Victoria Dedman argued to the jury.
She added it was logical to conclude that the unsanitary conditions in the home contributed to Mr. Blankenship's death.
“How did (the bacteria) get there? Look at that room. How could it not get there?” Dedman said.
Defense attorney Andrew Wessler of Decatur said Mr. Blankenship, a former nurse, had been sick for years and had to use a walker.
He contended Mr. Blankenship did not seem to want help, with one witness testifying that Mr. Blankenship got angry when people tried to help him medically — particularly when it came to maintaining equipment that included an oxygen generator and tracheotomy equipment.
“If we tried (to help), he'd get mad and shake his shillelagh (walking stick) at us. He didn't like people touching his stuff,” said Justin Tatman, a longtime friend of the family who was Mr. Blankenship's power of attorney.
Tatman also said Mr. Blankenship had difficulty throwing anything away, noting there were newspapers and tabloids in the house that dated back 20 years.
“He walled himself in his room and wouldn't let others in. That's what a hoarder does,” Wessler argued. “He did it to himself.”
But Dedman countered that it was “unreasonable” to conclude that Christie Brown, also a nurse, knew nothing about the condition of her brother or the two ailing dogs living in the same home.
“This was all on the first floor, all in a couple of rooms from where she slept,” Dedman said.
Monticello veterinarian Dr. Kay Lindsay testified one of the two ailing cocker spaniels had tumors that had broken through its skin. The other had almost no hair left and both had serious eye and ear infections.
Wessler argued that since the dogs belonged to her son, Mason Brown, they were not Christie Brown's responsibility. It was also noted that one of them was at least 16 years old.
“She had no intention of hurting them. She also helped pay for their care,” Wessler said.
Dedman argued that all members of the household were responsible for their care since they were “family pets.”
She also said Christie Brown and Ronald Blankenship argued frequently, and that Brown may have withheld care because she “wanted him out of the house.”
Piatt County State's Attorney Sarah Perry said several agencies worked diligently to obtain the conviction, the second in the case. Mason Brown was convicted in July on the same charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
“I appreciate all the work she (former State's Attorney Dana Rhoades) did, the work the investigators did. Obviously it was an old case, and I appreciate what our predecessors did,” Perry said.
“I appreciate the jury's verdict. I think they made the right decision. It was a very sad case.”
Webber set Christie Brown’s sentencing hearing for Dec. 7. She faces penalties ranging from probation to three to 14 years for the neglect convictions and probation to one to three years for the animal cruelty convictions.