BELFAST, Maine — A Rockland man pleaded guilty to manslaughter Friday morning in Waldo County Superior Court for the death of his infant daughter in August 2008.
Robert E. Harford Jr., 25, broke down in tears after listening to Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea give a detailed account of the events that led to the death of 9-week-old Ava Harford which she had pieced together from police and other interviews.
“[Harford] acknowledged that he threw Ava,” Zainea said. “As he threw her to the ground, he believed she hit the side of the refrigerator. He did so because he was frustrated. She was crying and would not stop crying.”
Justice Jeffrey Hjelm accepted Harford’s guilty plea for the charge of manslaughter — after making sure he understood he was waiving his right to a jury trial — and dismissed the murder charge. A conviction for murder carries a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years in prison, and could bring a life sentence. A manslaughter conviction does not have a mandatory prison sentence, but Harford could spend up to 30 years behind bars.
His sentencing likely will happen in a couple of months, said defense attorney Steven Peterson of West Rockport. Both the state and Peterson will make a case for what they consider an appropriate sentence, and Hjelm ultimately will decide what to do.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Harford’s father, Robert E. Harford Sr., said outside the courthouse after the plea was entered. “He loved her. Personally, I know it was an accident, so manslaughter is a tough charge.”
The state has disputed strongly any claims that Ava died in an accident. Harford was indicted last fall on a charge of “knowing and depraved indifference, murder and manslaughter” and has been held without bail at Knox County Jail since being arrested just after her death.
Zainea gave the judge an overview of the state’s case against Harford, saying that in 2008, he and the child’s mother, Kirby Gushee, 26, both worked in the maintenance department at the Samoset Resort and lived together at their home on New County Road in Rockland. They shared caretaking responsibilities for Ava, with help from family members.
On the evening of Aug. 17, 2008, Gushee was working at the Samoset and Harford was home alone taking care of his daughter, according to Zainea. Originally, he said that he had awakened her for a scheduled feeding at about 6:15 p.m. He claimed that while he was picking up Ava, who was swaddled in a blanket, off the couch, he accidentally dropped her from a “standing position,” Zainea recounted.
“He said he was sorry, it was an accident,” Zainea said.
Harford initially told police investigators that he then had noticed her breathing wasn’t right and called Gushee on her cell phone. When she didn’t answer the phone, he called the Samoset and left her a message.
“They radioed Kirby. She called and told him to call 911,” Zainea said. “Robert Harford called the dispatcher … [saying] ‘I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. She’s like a noodle.’”
The baby was taken by ambulance to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport and then airlifted to Maine Medical Center in Portland by LifeFlight helicopter. Maine’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, said after an autopsy that Ava had died from blunt-force trauma to the head, including multiple skull frac-tures, Zainea said. She also found evidence of healing rib fractures, which were unexplained.
But a different explanation seemed to come to light after a series of phone calls Gushee made to Harford were recorded by police investigators, as was a face-to-face meeting, during which Harford allegedly told Gushee that he had shaken the baby.
After the conversations were recorded, Harford met with Maine State Police Detectives Jeffrey Love and Jason Richards and apparently told them more about what had happened that evening.
“He picked her off the floor and placed her on the countertop,” Zainea said. “He said he shook her, and her head hit the countertop.”
Harford hung his head during Zainea’s recitation and did not look up.
After Zainea had finished, Peterson said that his client disagreed with the state’s “shaken baby” allegations. Harford did not shake Ava, Peterson said, except in an attempt to revive her after he “realized she was injured.”
When Justice Hjelm asked whether Harford was aware of the state’s evidence, he could not answer and simply nodded his head. Peterson told him to speak up for the record, and Harford lost his composure and began to cry. Hjelm called for a recess.
After the hearing, Peterson said that it was right that Hjelm dismissed the murder charge.
“That’s the appropriate course,” he said. “We’ve contended from the time of the indictment that this was not a murder case.”
Robert E. Harford Sr. said that his son was a “good boy” who had never been in trouble before. He remembered how upset Harford was after Ava was injured.
“He called me hysterical, crying, confused, just crying and screaming,” Harford Sr. said. “It was an awful moment … I feel that somehow, some way, it was a typical accident. He’s never done anything violent in his life.”
Efforts to speak with other family members were unsuccessful.