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Mother of starved girl guilty of murder

Tuesday, November 14, 2000

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

From the beginning, Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit asserted that Michelle Sue Tharp's starvation murder trial was just as much about her dead daughter as it was about her.

It was Tausha Lee Lanham's story, he told jurors.

Now, that story has an ending.

Jurors yesterday found Tharp guilty of first-degree murder in the death of the tiny 7-year-old girl, ending a weeklong trial filled with the sordid details of Tausha's hungry life and the bizarre moments surrounding her premature death.

"God rest her soul. Tausha, we love you," her father's sister, Rhonda Lanham, tearfully told reporters outside the Washington County courtroom moments after the verdict. "I just want everybody to know, please, when you go home, hug and love your children. No child deserves to be treated bad."

The jury of seven men and five women, most of whom have children, delivered their verdict about 3:30 p.m. after deliberating for less than three hours. They also convicted Tharp, 31, of Burgettstown, of endangering the welfare of a child and abuse of a corpse.

On the third and final verdict on the murder charge, Rhonda Lanham punched the air, cried out and doubled over in tears.

Police arrested Tharp on April 19, 1998, a day after she reported Tausha missing from a mall in Steubenville, Ohio.

Investigators quickly learned that Tharp and her live-in boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger Sr., had invented a story that the girl had gotten lost in the mall to hide the fact that they left Tausha's corpse atop a large bush in the West Virginia woods.

Tharp had found Tausha dead in her bed the previous morning after what Pettit said was a long period in which she had been starved deliberately. Tharp testified that she did not call for help because she was panic-stricken that social workers would take her other children away. Instead, she and Bittinger took Tausha's body on a long, strange series of errands in his car before leaving the body, wrapped in a sheet and stuffed into garbage bags, in the woods.

Bittinger also faces a homicide charge in the case, but no trial has been scheduled. He testified against Tharp.

Tharp's attorney, Glenn Alterio, said he was disappointed by the outcome. He is now setting his sights on today's sentencing, when jurors will choose between the death penalty or a life sentence without parole.

Alterio, who is the county's public defender, said his client had prepared for a possible guilty verdict and was handling the situation well. Tharp left the courtroom red-eyed and appeared to be on the verge of breaking down as deputies handcuffed her. She wore the same green jacket and skirt she wore during the first day of the trial.

Pettit said the case had been more emotional than most for him, saying that when he thinks of Tausha, he feels guilty after eating.

Using the same sets of facts, the attorneys presented vastly different portraits of Tharp. Was she a conniving, wicked mother who deliberately starved her middle daughter to death? Or was she simply a bad parent who loved her children but was overwhelmed by their health problems and her own dysfunctional relationships?

Jurors ultimately chose to believe the former.

With his client facing the possibility of the death penalty, Alterio reiterated his argument that Tausha's death from malnutrition occurred because of long-standing health problems -- specifically a "failure to thrive" -- that prevented her from growing and developing properly.

"She ate. She just didn't grow," Alterio said in his his closing.

Tausha was born prematurely and had numerous ailments, including genetic abnormalities and problems with her breathing, blood, glands, nervous system and gastrointestinal tract.

She weighed 2 pounds, 5 ounces at birth, and died nearly eight years later at less than 12 pounds. An autopsy revealed that she had not eaten for days before her death.

Witnesses testified that Tharp starved Tausha, keeping food from her for a day or more at a time. They said she confined her daughter to her room at night to prevent her from searching for any available morsel in the kitchen, where she ate from the garbage can and retrieved scraps from pet bowls. They also said she treated her son and two other daughters better than she did Tausha.

Tharp's possible motives were never discussed in court, but Pettit said in an interview that Tharp might have been acting out of spite against Tausha's father or anger that that her child needed extra attention.

Other witnesses told of a mother who cared for all her children, who neither denied Tausha food nor abused her.

Alterio pointed out that Tausha was so sickly that the federal government opted to provide her with monthly welfare checks of $539 for the rest of her life after merely reviewing her medical records.

In a pitch for sympathy, Alterio asked jurors to consider that Tharp endured a difficult childhood and a series of abusive romances. She had no transportation and no telephone and lacked support from the four fathers of her five children. Alterio noted that one of Tharp's children, Benjamin, was put up for adoption instead of being aborted.

"What does that indicate to you about her feelings toward children?" Alterio asked.

With little help from anyone, Tharp had limited resources with which to care for her daughter. It was no wonder, he told jurors, that she did not show up for all her appointments with various social service agencies.

Nevertheless, Alterio said, she tried. When told in 1998 that she could stay on welfare a little while longer because she was caring for an infant, she chose to receive job training and go to work instead. And no social service agency ever considered Tausha in such a precarious situation that they needed to strip Tharp of her child, Alterio said.

Despite Alterio's best efforts, the last impression left with the jury was by Pettit, who delivered an impassioned hour-long closing argument using photographs as props.

Pettit told the jurors that Tharp systematically defeated the attempts of agencies, such as Washington County Children and Youth Services, to aid Tausha, thereby engineering a "pattern of deception." She missed appointments, refused to answer the door when they called and hid Tausha from them, Pettit said.

Tharp defeated even the efforts of doctors to help Tausha because she stopped taking her daughter for check-ups after October 1993, he said.

Pettit referred to damaging testimony from several witnesses, including a high school classmate, who recalled Tharp telling her that Tausha belonged "six foot under in a body bag," and Tharp's father's estranged wife, who testified that Tharp once told her, "I hate [Tausha] so bad that I could just kill her."

And once again, he outlined the shocking series of events that led Tharp, upon discovering her daughter's dead body, to put Tausha in a car seat, hop into Bittinger's car, visit her grandmother's to call off work and drop off laundry, swing by a nearby lake, and buy garbage bags before leaving the corpse in a remote area.

Standing before the jury, case pictures and his legal pads resting on the wooden rail separating prosecutor and jury, Pettit called Tausha a "fighter" who overcame abuse, neglect and a lack of love.

But, he told the jury, in the end, the plucky little girl could not survive a mother who tried to kill her.

"Tausha was indeed a fighter, and she overcame all of these things. But she could not overcome the act of all food, all nourishment being withheld from her for several days," Pettit said.

During his last words to the jury, Pettit showed a photograph of the refrigerator in the Tharp home on which hung a saying: "Home is where the heart is."

"There was no heart in that home when it came to Tausha Lanham," Pettit said.



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