After six days of trial, a jury of seven women and five men needed only 45 minutes on Tuesday to convict 37-year-old Kimberly Maurer of first-degree murder and seven other charges resulting from the death of her 12-year-old stepson, Maxwell Shollenberger.
Max lived with Maurer and the boy’s father, Scott Schollenberger, in their Annville home, where he was found dead, naked and covered in his feces, in a filthy bedroom on the morning of May 26, 2020.
Prosecutors alleged that Max died due to a combination of prolonged starvation and blunt force head injuries suffered while under the couple’s care.
Maurer now faces life in prison without parole, the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania.
Maurer will remain in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility, without bail, until her sentencing by Judge Bradford Charles on June 1.
After testimony concluded on Monday afternoon, Judge Charles told the jury to go home and rest, warning them that their work on Tuesday would be grueling.
Tuesday morning began with closing arguments from prosecution and defense lawyers, after which the judge instructed jurors on the law that applied to the case and how they should conduct their deliberations.
The jury retired at 1:45 p.m. and returned with a verdict just 45 minutes later.
Attorneys’ closing arguments to jury on Tuesday morning
“You cannot ignore the existence of Scott Schollenberger in this case. Scott was a desperate, angry man who couldn’t take it any more. That’s a man who kills his son, and he did. That man murdered his son in his son’s own bed.” – Defense attorney Andrew Race, referring to defendant Kim Maurer’s fiance.
Sticking to the theme he had emphasized throughout the trial, court-appointed defense attorney Andrew Race sought to focus the jury’s attention on Scott Schollenberger, who had already pled guilty to first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence for his son’s death.
Race contended that Scott’s frustration with Max’s urination and defecation throughout the house, coupled with his loss of job and denial of unemployment benefits, led to a desperate, heavily drinking, hopeless man who controlled Maurer and the other children in the household through threats and intimidation.
It was Scott’s blow to the head that killed Max, Race argued.
“We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know for a fact that [Max] suffered a substantial blow to the head,” he said.
Referring to one of the interviews investigators had with Scott, Race recalled a detective asking Scott, “When you looked your son in the face, how could you smack him?”
Race also reminded jurors that Scott was caught fooling with surveillance cameras at the house at about 11 p.m. on the night before Max was found dead.
“Scott Scollenberger, out there screwing with a camera. You’re not shutting a camera off because you didn’t do anything.”
To bolster his assertion that Scott could be angry and violent in the house, Race recalled the testimony of Maurer’s 17-year-old daughter Erika, who said she saw Scott pick Max up by the shoulders and scream in his face.
Race acknowledged that Maurer was guilty of one of the charges – endangering the welfare of a child – and that she could have done more to help Max. But, he insisted, “that doesn’t absolve Kim of responsibility, but it also doesn’t make her a murderer.”
Race ended his address to jurors by suggesting that the evidence might justify a guilty verdict to the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter, but not murder in either the first or third degree.
Even though the commonwealth had not charged Maurer with involuntary manslaughter, Judge Charles had earlier announced that he would be giving the jury that option, based on the evidence presented during trial.
“She had many opportunities to save a life, yet every minute of every day, she made a conscious decision to let this child die. … She killed his body, but she also killed his soul.” – District Attorney Pier Hess Graf, referring to Kim Maurer in her closing statement.
Summing up the prosecution’s case, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf focused on medical evidence that Max’s advanced state of decline could not have happened over just a few months, the horrible conditions in the room Max died in, and the many inconsistent statements, if not outright lies, that Maurer uttered before and during trial.
“Defendant and her fiance starved their 12-year-old son, Maxwell,” she began. “It was a slow, painful, torturous, way to take a life.”
Max wasn’t only starved physically, “he was starved of love, affection, human compassion, warmth, hugs, and education,” she said.
Hess Graf painted a portrait of a selfish woman who put herself, her own children, her home, and even her dogs ahead of Maxwell’s well-being, failing to even pick up a phone and call for help.
Referring to the enormous amount of text and Facebook messages police recovered from Maurer’s phone, Hess Graf argued “we can text 32,000 times, but we can’t call 911.”
According to the prosecutor, Max started a downward spiral when Scott and Kim met. Earlier testimony had suggested that the boy was potty-trained at the time the couple met, but that he regressed to incontinence as time went by.
Scott Schollenberger was passive and uninvolved in Max’s care, while Maurer took the lead, Hess Graf said. She showed the jury numerous text messages from Kim accusing Scott of being “too soft” on Max or otherwise inept in caring for Max and addressing his urination and defiant behavior.
Hess Graf accused Maurer of flat-out lying on the stand and made a specific point of highlighting Maurer’s insistence that several highly incriminating text messages sent from her phone number were written not by her, but by Scott, who Kim said had frequent access to her phone.
It turned out that both sides had agreed, in a written pre-trial stipulation, that all text messages were in fact created and sent by the indicated account holders. “They agreed they were from her,” Hess Graf said.
Pushing for a first-degree murder conviction based on prolonged inaction in the face of obvious abuse, Hess Graf insisted that Maurer had to have been fully aware of what was going on, and therefore had the specific intent to kill Max.
“She knew death was going to occur, and she let it happen,” she said.
Reactions from the attorneys
Reached by phone after the verdict, Race said that he was disappointed in the rapid verdict, and that an appeal was likely. He declined to specify any grounds for appeal until he gets a chance to review the trial testimony and evidence.
At an impromptu post-trial meeting with reporters in her office, Hess Graf said, “I’m proud of this verdict and thankful to the people who sat on the jury for a week.”
“For the first time,” she continued, “12 people, not one, stood up for this child.”
Miscellaneous trial notes
- In accordance with COVID-19 protocols, the jury deliberated in the courtroom, with all spectators removed. Pre-COVID, juries decided cases in smaller rooms specifically set aside for deliberations.
- In addition to thanking the jurors for their service, Judge Charles praised attorneys on both sides for their efficient presentation of a complex and exhibit-filled case.
- While Lebanon County courtroom technology lags behind most other counties, there were few glitches when presenting audio, video, and text evidence on screens throughout the courtroom.
- Court-appointed defense attorney Race said that he and his court-appointed co-counsel, Michael Light, will be paid $5,000 and $2,500, respectively, by Lebanon County for all of their work on the case, including months of trial preparation as well as the trial itself and the upcoming sentencing. Pennsylvania is one of only two states that does not provide statewide funding for indigent defense.
- Special assistant prosecutor Edward McCann, who is the senior assistant district attorney in Montgomery County and experienced in prosecuting child abuse cases, said he offered his services for free and took a week of vacation to assist at trial. McCann gave the prosecution’s opening statement and shared questioning witnesses with Hess Graf.
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