NEW BRUNSWICK – First criminal charges, now a final restraining order has been dropped and reversed, respectively, for a Metuchen woman who was charged and indicted with poisoning the father of her child in 2016, according to a three-judge Appellate Court panel.
In a 23-page decision on Jan. 17, the Appellate Court reversed a final restraining order of Feb. 3, 2017, where a Family Court judge ordered Theresa Freis – after an 11-day trial – to pay the man $49,542 for attorney fees. Freis appealed the order.
In 2016, a Middlesex County grand jury had indicted Freis, who was 44 years old at the time, for attempting to murder the man by poisoning him during an incident in May, according to Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey.
The man, whose identity had been withheld, was hospitalized, but recovered. Freis was charged on Aug. 24, 2016, with attempted murder, aggravated assault, unlawful possession of a weapon, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and two counts of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, according to a release by the prosecutor’s office. Freis was arrested and charged on June 17, 2016.
The indictment was handed up after Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Vincent Vitale presented evidence and testimony, which showed Freis administered clonazepam, or benzodiazepines, to her victim on May 25, 2016, in Metuchen. The victim became ill and was taken to JFK Medical Center in Edison before he eventually recovered.
On May 24, 2016, Freis sent a text message to the man asking whether or not he “prefer[red] sugar in [his] coffee or plain black” and stated his daughter, who was eight years old at the time, would like to show him a “tee and net” in her backyard when he arrived the following day to pick her up for his scheduled parenting time, which was detailed in court papers.
The man was surprised by the offer of coffee because for the many years he has known Freis, she had not provided refreshments when he picked their daughter up for parenting time. The following day, though the man usually picked up their daughter at Freis’ parents home, he received a text message from Freis advising him their daughter was at her home. When he went to pick her up, Freis and their daughter were on the porch. Freis had a cup of coffee waiting for him, according to the documents.
Their daughter poured sugar from a box into the cup of coffee. The man and his daughter went to the backyard where the man and daughter played catch and Freis attempted to construct a pitch-back net. Shortly after the man finished drinking the coffee, his speech became slurred. He then became incapacitated and nonresponsive, according to court documents.
Freis unsuccessfully attempted to call her father, a physician, and then called 911, according to the documents. Emergency medical personnel arrived and transported the man to the emergency room at JFK Medical Center where he arrive comatose and in critical condition.
The man’s treating physician’s initial diagnoses included a “possible seizure at the time of presentation,” “respiratory failure,” benzodiazepine, positive urine drug screen” and the cause of the man’s “altered mental status” was unknown.
When the man woke up three days later in the hospital, he testified he recalled Freis holding the cup of coffee when he arrived, the child pouring what he understood was sugar in to his coffee, going to the backyard, drinking the coffee and feeling incapacitated, according to the documents.
The man, who was released from the hospital six days later, said he did not eat or drink anything unusual on May 25, 2016, and had not taken medications or drugs of any kind on that day or the days preceding it.
Twenty days after he left the hospital, he filed a complaint against Freis seeking a domestic violence temporary restraining order. The complaint alleged Freis committed the predicate act of assault and asserted Freis gave him a cup of coffee on May 25, 2016, with benzodiazepine, which caused his coma and life-threating medical conditions, according to the documents.
The temporary restraining order was granted and Freis was criminally charged.
Freis was called to testify during the appeal trial. She asserted her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and refused to testify. Her counsel argued the court should not draw any negative inference based on her assertion of her Fifth Amendment rights
During the trial, Dr. Kamalakar Vanam, who was the emergency room doctor who cared for the man when he arrived at the hospital, testified as a fact witness but was neither qualified nor offered as an expert. Dr. Philip Kramer, a neurologist employed at JFK Medical Center, consulted on the man’s treatment at the hospital on May 28 and May 29, 2016. Kramer was also not qualified nor offered as an expert witness.
“Lacking any expert testimony supporting its findings, the court relied on the testimony of Dr. Vanam and Dr. Kramer to support its causation determination, but we are convinced it was error to do so,” the three-judge panel said in its decision. “Treating physicians may properly opine as to the cause of a patient’s injuries or condition based only on their diagnoses and treatment of the patient.”
The three-judge panel said Vanam, who was aware of the positive urine test for benzodiazepine and plaintiff’s positive response to the administration of the antidote for benzodiazepine, did not testify he diagnosed benzodiazepine as the cause of the man’s critical medical condition.
Similarly, the judges said Kramer did not testify he diagnosed the man’s medical condition as having been caused by benzodiazepine or he treated the man for any conditions caused by benzodiazepine.
“In fact, the toxicology blood screen taken on May 27, 2016, one day before Dr. Kramer first saw [the man], showed no benzodiazepine in [his] system,” the decision said “Moreover, the voluminous medical records introduced at trial do not include any diagnosis related to benzodiazepine made by Dr. Kramer or any of the numerous other physicians who were involved in [his] care and treatment at the hospital.”
The three-judge panel said they are “convinced it was plain error” for the court to allow Dr. Kramer to testify as to his belief and for the court to rely on his testimony to support its conclusion benzodiazepine caused the man’s critical medical condition.
The criminal charges against Freis were dismissed on May 18, 2018, according to the court. The state had requested dismissal of the criminal charged because its expert could not “opine beyond a reasonable doubt the [man’s medical condition] was the result of benzodiazepine poisoning” as opposed to “an underlying medical condition.”
The Appellate Court stated they reviewed the transcript of the criminal court proceeding and concluded it to be “irrelevant to their determination of whether the Family Court correctly found the man presented sufficient evidence supporting the issuance of the final restraining order.” The court said the decision in the criminal court “only provides confirmation Freis was criminally charged … in connection with the incident involving the man.”
Joseph DiRienzo, of DiRienzo, DiRienzo and Dulinski, P.A., Westfield, argued the case for the man. Philip Nettl, Benedict and Altman, New Brunswick, argued case for Freis.