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Mom to face trial in son’s death

Jenifer Mason allegedly rolled over on infant while sleeping, suffocating him.

Jenifer Mason is accused of suffocating her infant child while the two were sleeping in the same bed last May.

Times Leader Staff Photo/Clark Van Orden

WEATHERLY – Relying on toxicology studies, autopsy findings and a report by a forensic pathologist who offered the opinion mothers have a “sixth sense” when it comes to their children, a Carbon County prosecutor convinced a district judge that Jenifer Jade Mason should be held responsible for the suffocation death of her infant son.

Assistant District Attorney Jean A. Engler and state police investigators at Hazleton believe Mason, 27, was drunk when she rolled over on her 2 ½-month-old son, Seth T. Gasperrelli, as they slept in the same bed on May 13.

District Judge Thomas Homanko sent charges of involuntary manslaughter, endangering the welfare of children and recklessly endangering another person against Mason to trial in Carbon County Court after a three-hour, turbulent preliminary hearing that involved several disputes between Engler and defense attorney Gregory Mousseau.

Mason sat motionless during the hearing, even when Engler played the emergency telephone call to Carbon County 911 made by her mother, Kim Mason.

In the background, Mason was heard screaming, “My baby’s dead. I slept on my baby. Oh my God.”

Carbon County Coroner Bruce Nalesnik said he ruled the cause of death sudden infant death and the manner of death a homicide. Nalesnik testified he based his decision on a newspaper account of the 911 call, verbal reports from investigators and the toxicology report that allegedly showed Mason’s blood alcohol level was 0.36 percent at 3:30 a.m.

Trooper James J. Surmick said Mason admitted to drinking alcohol at several places before leaving the last bar at 2:30 a.m., and arriving home at 308 Hudsondale St., Weatherly, where Seth was being watched by a babysitter.

Mason and her son moved in with her mother six days before he died, Surmick said.

Mason told Surmick that Seth was sleeping in a bassinet when she arrived home.

Sometime in the early-morning hours of May 13, Seth woke up and Mason changed his diaper and prepared a bottle. Mason told Surmick that her son didn’t want the bottle, so she laid him next to her in bed and they fell asleep.

Mason woke up and noticed Seth wasn’t breathing and his lips were blue. The 911 call was made at about 11:40 a.m., Surmick said.

Surmick said he spoke with Mason at Hazleton General Hospital, where he detected an odor of alcohol on her breath. She submitted to separate blood alcohol tests an hour apart in the afternoon, Surmick said.

Surmick said Mason’s blood was tested by Dr. Dean F. Fritch, who determined her peak blood alcohol level was 0.36 percent at 3:30 a.m.

Dr. Barbara Bollinger, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy at Lehigh Valley Hospital, determined Seth died from sudden infant death while co-sleeping with another.

Engler submitted a report by Bollinger who said he felt that mothers, even when sleeping, have a sixth sense about their children. Bollinger supposed that, due to Mason being intoxicated, she lost any sense her son was suffocating.

“Intoxication of infant’s mother contributed to the infant’s death,” Bollinger said.

Mousseau called Bollinger’s report “sick science.” He declined comment after the hearing.

During his closing arguments, Mousseau called the death “tragic” and said prosecutors are attempting to make sudden infant death a criminal act.

“We have no idea how deep my client sleeps,” Mousseau said. “This case is about criminalizing parents who sleep with their children after having a few drinks.”

Engler said Mason’s reckless actions by drinking alcohol and sleeping in the same bed with Seth caused his death.

Mousseau was unsuccessful at modifying Mason’s bail of $50,000.

“I’m doing this for Seth,” Homanko said after refusing to change her bail. “I’m keeping my word and keeping it at $50,000. If I had my way, it would be $1 million.”

Mason remains jailed at the Carbon County Prison.

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