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Little Boy Lost

Accused murderer Renee Polreis pulls out all the stops in a pre-trial hearing.

Renee Polreis sat on the floor, her back against the sofa, as her son David clambered onto the couch behind her. It was about their eighth trip to the office of Greeley psychologist Byron Norton, who'd begun seeing the pair after Polreis complained that the two-year-old boy, whom she'd adopted from a Russian orphanage, wasn't bonding with her. Suddenly, without a word, David rolled forward, dropping from the sofa onto his mother's lap.

"I believe he was saying, 'I'm beginning to trust you,'" Norton testified in a Greeley District Court hearing last week. "[David] then turned around and sat on her lap. He embraced her face and kissed her in a circle all the way around her face. When that happened, Mrs. Polreis got a little rigid, and that concerned me."

The psychologist continued: "She mentioned feeling a little depressed with all the stress, and she mentioned wanting to get medication for the stress. I said that the next [session] I wanted to see her alone, because of her responses." But there was no next session--not with Norton, anyway. After that meeting, Polreis began taking David to another therapist. And in February 1996, just one month after his final session with Norton, David was dead and Renee had been arrested for allegedly beating him to death with a wooden spoon ("Terrible Two," October 10, 1996).

Ever since the arrest, however, Renee and her attorneys have been preparing the groundwork for a unique defense theory: They claim that David, whom Norton diagnosed as suffering from reactive attachment disorder, went into a rage and inflicted the injuries on himself.

Last week's hearing before Greeley District Judge Roger Klein was held to determine whether Polreis would be permitted to introduce evidence of David's alleged psychological condition--which is purportedly caused by poor nurturing at infancy and results in a difficulty attaching to caregivers--in her trial on charges of child abuse resulting in death.

Prosecutors say they expected Polreis attorney Harvey Steinberg to attempt to prove that David, in effect, killed himself. But they were left confused in the wake of what happened in court.

Few spectators other than Polreis's faithful trio of elderly supporters were present when Norton took the stand on Thursday to explain his diagnosis of David Polreis.

"The Polreises talked about David's rages," the psychologist said. "Intense rages, at least three times a week. He was rebellious about food. He'd dump his food, pour his food. Basically, every mealtime was a conflict. Feeding him was a battle." Renee told Norton that the boy was aggressive, impulsive and controlling. He could also be extremely charming and was indiscriminately affectionate with strangers.

In Norton's view, those characteristics pointed to the existence of an attachment disorder. But it was David's actions during play therapy that clinched it for him. During their first session together, Norton told the court, David picked up a dollhouse and began cramming toy soldiers into it. "He jammed them in and tried to slam the door. Then he held the house and shook it, and the soldiers fell out.

"I said, 'This is a metaphor for the orphanage and how crowded and disorganized it was,'" Norton recalled for the court. "Then [David] picked up one figure, and he said, 'No good! Bad!' And he tossed it into the wastebasket. He did that again and again. He was telling us how he feels he is no good, that he is worthless, that he is trash."

Each succeeding time he met with Renee and her son, Norton testified, David seemed to reach out to his mother more and more. In early January 1996, however, Renee told Norton that David had bitten her severely and that she'd had to pry his teeth apart with a sink drainer in order to loosen his hold on her.

"In her view," Norton said, "she was starting to feel a little defeated. She expressed reservations about how it [the adoption] was going, even though I noted that he was moving toward her. She said she'd been thinking about maybe not going ahead with the adoption. She really made a cry for help. She said that her ability to handle it was coming near the edge." Polreis's husband, however, still wanted to make a go of the adoption, Norton said. "And that posed a real conflict," the psychologist testified.

The following session was the one in which David tumbled into his mother's lap, Norton said. And then Renee Polreis abruptly stopped the therapy.

The change in therapists was soon followed by a "second honeymoon" for the Polreises: four days in Mexico without David or their other adopted son, Isaac. The couple was back in town about a week when Renee's husband David left for a short trip to Texas. Those perceived abandonments, Norton testified, could have frightened David and led to a horrific rage in which he could have injured himself.

It seemed to court observers that Steinberg was making progress in proving that the boy may in fact have hurt himself, but then he threw the court--and the prosecutors--a curve with his next witness, a pathologist who testified by phone from Arizona. Dr. Arthur Sitelman testified that he believed, after viewing medical records and slides, that David Polreis died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia and that the massive bruising on his body was the result of a severe coagulation problem.

The switch in direction and emphasis surprised Weld County district attorney Al Dominguez. "I think what we have is an attorney struggling to find a defense, any defense," Dominguez tells Westword.

In closing his own argument, Dominguez claimed Steinberg hadn't proven that David suffered from attachment disorder and that he shouldn't be allowed to present any evidence about the psychological theory at trial. Steinberg, however, claimed victory, saying he'd proved what he'd set out to prove--that David could have harmed himself.

Judge Klein appeared to agree, for the most part, with Steinberg. In his decision, issued this week, he ruled that Polreis may introduce evidence regarding attachment disorder, but only to explain some of David's bruising. However, the judge ruled that she may not use it in an attempt to prove that the child died of self-inflicted injuries or as a justification for child abuse resulting in death.

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