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Accused man may drop plea

Jim Curtis, alleged to have killed a 3-year-old, is set to change his not guilty plea.

Jim Curtis, accused last year of killing the 3-year-old boy he planned to adopt, is scheduled to change his plea in the case today.

Curtis, 26, of New Port Richey previously pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. His attorney, Bob Attridge, on Thursday set a change of plea hearing at 1:30 this afternoon in front of Circuit Judge William Webb.

Neither Attridge nor the prosecutor handling the case, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, would say whether the two sides have reached an agreement.

"Nothing's carved in stone," Halkitis said Thursday. The prosecutor acknowledged he has been in negotiations with Attridge, who declined to comment.

It is unlikely Curtis would plead guilty without a deal because the state has announced it is seeking the death penalty in the case.

More likely, said local defense attorney J. Larry Hart, is that the two sides have worked out some sort of agreement on a lesser charge.

"There are a number of lesser charges to which one might enter a plea," said Hart, a former state and federal prosecutor. In this case, possible lesser charges could include second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Prosecutors say Alex Boucher died because Curtis maliciously wrapped him in a blanket Sept. 25 in a manner that prevented the child from breathing, either by covering his mouth or nose or pulling the bedding so tight that the boy could not expand his chest. An assistant medical examiner concluded Alex died from asphyxiation.

Prosecutors allege that Curtis was angry with Alex because the boy had soiled himself.

Attridge, in pre-trial hearings, has repeatedly attacked the prosecution's case as lacking any direct evidence of a crime.

One of the biggest holes in the case, Attridge has argued, is the testimony of the assistant medical examiner, Dr. Marie Hansen, who said at a January hearing that she could not rule out Alex's myriad health problems as a factor in the boy's death. Alex, a ward of the state of Connecticut, suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, meningitis and hemophilia.

Attridge also has suggested that police tricked Curtis into giving a statement about the incident. Curtis admitted wrapping the boy in a blanket so the child would not get out of bed. He only gave that statement, Attridge has said, because police used Curtis' wife, Jennifer, to get him to talk. According to a video recording played in court, Jennifer Curtis told her hus-band she would be arrested unless he gave police a statement.

Prosecutors might be willing to agree to a plea on a lesser charge because "the case has some difficulties," said Hart, who has been following the case through news accounts.

"One can't fault either side for recognizing the respective strengths and weaknesses of the other," Hart said. "If there's a middle ground that's consistent with the ends of justice, there's nothing wrong with seeking out a resolution."

_ Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavissptimes.com.

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