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Pa. parents guilty in death of adopted Russian boy

There's little debate that pint-sized Nathaniel Craver suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, attachment disorders and regular injuries after he was adopted from Russia by a Pennsylvania couple.

His parents say they took him to a stream of doctors and therapists because of bizarre, self-abusive behavior that left Nathaniel badly bruised and them at their wit's end. Then, in August 2009, he suffered a fatal head injury that took his life five days later.

Michael Craver, 47, an engineer and Air Force veteran, and his wife Nanette, 55, were convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment and conspiracy, but acquitted of murder charges.

The Cravers insist their 7-year-old son ran headlong into an indoor pellet stove the night before they found him unconscious.

"(Self-harm) is a hard concept to grasp if you haven't lived it, like Mike and Nanette did," defense lawyer Rick Robinson told jurors Friday.

But prosecutors said the skinny, blond boy's 41-pound body told a different tale, not one of self-abuse but of chronic abuse and neglect.

"Common sense tells you that he didn't do this to himself. Common sense tells you that they did this to him, ... and they prevented him from getting medical care," Tim Barker, York County's chief deputy district attorney, said in his closing arguments.

Prosecutors believe Nathaniel died from repeated blows to the head, but never said which parent allegedly delivered them. For their part, defense lawyers presented something of a joint defense, calling friends and medical experts to testify for both spouses during the nearly two-week trial.

Two Russian TV stations covered Friday's session, and a vice consul with the Russian embassy was on hand. Russian officials closely watched the verdict, especially after a string of similar cases threatened the intercountry adoptions.

Russian authorities say that at least 17 Russian children have died in domestic-violence incidents in their American families. And a Tennessee woman stoked the tensions last year when she sent an allegedly violent 7-year-old boy she had adopted back to Moscow alone — with a note about his problems.

When international adoptions took off in the late 1980s, there was a feeling the children needed "just a little bit of love," according to Chuck Johnson, executive director of the Virginia-based National Council for Adoption.

"We very quickly began to realize that some of these children were coming with profound hurts, physically and emotionally. And that 'a little bit of love' was a good start ... but they would need counseling and therapy and specialized parenting," Johnson said.

Most of the adoptees slain in the U.S. came from Russia and eastern Europe, he said. Children there often end up in orphanages for the same reasons American children end up in foster care, he said.

"They've been abused or neglected, and have suffered before reaching orphanage care. And in Russia, where the institutional care standard is really, I think, pretty low, that suffering continues ... in a deprived environment," Johnson said.

Nathaniel and his sister, born prematurely, spent their first year in a Russian hospital and another six months in an orphanage.

Nathaniel weighed 3½ pounds at birth, and never moved out of the fifth percentile in weight for boys his age. The prosecution's forensic pathologist, Dr. Wayne Ross, listed starvation as a factor in his death. But the defense disputed that, arguing that his weight never varied by more than a pound or two.

The two sides also sparred over the degree of medical care the Cravers had sought out. The defense said they took the children to experts at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and elsewhere. But Barker said they often quit the therapy programs.

One therapist with a Catholic social services agency described Nanette Craver, who worked part-time at a Kohl's store, as a harsh mother who punished her son for small misdeeds.

Barker also questioned why the couple, who were home-schooling the twins by the end, hadn't child-proofed their home in Dillsburg.

They had a hard wooden bedframe in Nathaniel's bedroom, despite his reported head-banging, and set up his play area by the wood-pellet stove, the prosecutor said.

The couple, jailed since their February 2010 arrests, were expected to be released Friday on $50,000 bail each. Defense lawyers will ask for time served at the Nov. 18 sentencing, while prosecutors may seek more time on the multiple felonies. The involuntary manslaughter charge carries a 9- to 16-month term.

"They've lost their house. They've lost their jobs. They've lost their daughter, and their son. They've lost everything," public defender Clasina Houtman and other members of defense team said after the verdict

Michael Craver had rushed the unconscious Nathaniel to a hospital before dawn on Aug. 20, 2009. He said the boy had seemed fine, despite the stove incident, when they put him to bed at 7 p.m., but was unresponsive when they checked on him at 4:30 a.m.

One defense expert compared the death to that of actress Natasha Richardson, who didn't immediately seek care after a ski accident that caused a fatal head injury.

Nathaniel died five days later of a subdural hematoma. His sister was removed from the couple's home the next day. She is now being raised by a Craver relative.

The twins had been born in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, according to Russian news reports.

A therapy video played by the defense Friday shows Michael Craver talking to his son about a fishing trip they had taken. The enthused boy counts to three as he tries to remember how many fish he had caught.

Impulsively, he jumps up and hugs his father, saying "Thanks, Dad." Michael Craver calls him "Buddy."

Barker, though, turned the tables on the exhibit.

"The video clip is nice, and it's heartwarming," he said. "Quite frankly, they showed us how sweet and innocent a child Nathaniel Craver was."

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