RICHMOND - Flanked by a row of television cameras and with a phalanx of supporters behind her, an El Cerrito woman appeared in court for the first time Thursday to answer neglect charges in the death of her 680-pound daughter. Marlene Corrigan, a 48-year-old single mother and federal employee, was mostly silent in her first public appearance since she was charged with felony child abuse three weeks ago. Her attorney, Michael Cardoza, entered her not-guilty plea and later told reporters the case was a knee- jerk reaction to 13-year-old Christina Corrigan's enormous weight. The mother "couldn't have done much more to take care of that child," he said. After the arraignment, prosecutor Brian Haynes tried to steer the attention away from the girl's weight.
We are approaching this case from the point of view that the daughter had on her body horrendous bed sores, was living in her own urine and feces, and the mother did nothing at all to get her help," the deputy district attorney said. The woman would have been charged even if Christina had been skinny, he said. Members of weight-support groups were skeptical. "I never heard of them charging anyone because their daughter was anorexic, said Judy Freespirit, an Oakland member of a chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "If anyone should be prosecuted it should he society for letting Christina be harassed," Freespirit said. She referred to reports that Christina had refused to go outside, for the last year of her life because of fear she would be ridiculed because of her weight. Six support group members - five large women and a slender man - said they came to the arraignment to show their support for Corrigan. At the same time, they said they were not sure what to make of the reports of her daughterıs living conditions. "Whether or not the mother can be blamed in this ease, we are hoping this will not become a precedent for accusing people of abuse because of obesity," said Teresa Colter, one of the authors of the Concord-based Fat and Terrific, or FAT, newsletter.
"If there was neglect, that was one thing," said Maureen Parke, owner of oooO Baby BABY Productions. which publishes a monthly magazine promoting weight acceptance. "But we cannot prosecute people for things beyond their control."
"It's not a crime to be fat, and it's not a crime to have a fat child," said Marilyn Wann, editor of the San Francisco-based FATSO magazine.
Christina died in November from heart failure caused by morbid obesity. Police found her body, covered with bedsores on the living room floor of her mother's San Pablo Avenue apartment.
Police say the carpeted floor was littered with empty food containers and feces, and smelled of urine.
Sally Smith, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, said from her Sacramento office that hygiene often is a problem for heavy people.
"When you are very large you have areas you can't reach and you have skin folds that are hard to clean," she said.
"Christina deserved to live in an environment that was clean, but hygiene is very difficult for large people."
Christina could walk only with difficulty and often relieved herself in her bedsheets, her mother had told police.
Cardoza, Corrigan's lawyer, told reporters that Christina was not overweight until she was 4 years old. Then she was taken off the pheno- barbitol that had been prescribed to control her grand mal seizures. Her weight immediately started to climb, Cardoza said.
Cardoza deftly hid Corrigan from reporters until a few minutes before the scheduled start of the hearing, when he led her into the courtroom. Dressed in a blue jacket and skirt, the woman sat in the front of the courtroom with her back to the audience.
After Cardoza entered her plea he told the judge, Laurel Lindenbaum, that the parties had agreed to put off her preliminary hearing until Sept. 22.
The judge asked Corrigan if she had agreed to waive her rights to have the hearing sooner. Corrigan agreed.
As her attorney whisked her out of the Bay Municipal courtroom, Corrigan stopped for a moment to take the hand of support offered by Freespirit.
The assembled media followed on Corrigan's heels. She declined to answer questions as she was led to a waiting car.