Infant murder trial weighs whether 14-year-old can be a preemie's primary caregiver

Defense asks whether teen's caring for infant was mom's only practical option

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 9, 2013 

The second day of testimony in the infant death trial of Jessica Shah focused on the care typically given her 7-month-old daughter Alejandra Molina before the baby died of dehydration on Aug. 1, 2011.

Attorneys probed apparent discrepancies between what Shah's other children initially told investigators and what they later told service agency workers, and questioned whether a 14-year-old daughter should have shouldered the primary responsibility of caring for a premature infant.

Besides felony murder, Shah faces two counts of first-degree child cruelty, one alleging she denied the infant sustenance and another accusing her of inflicting pain upon the child by leaving the baby in a hot room as temperatures outside rose to the upper 90s.

The first witness Wednesday was Columbus Detective Vincent Sampson Jr., who said he initially charged Shah with child cruelty based on the mother and daughter's telling him no one checked on the infant for 16 hours, from around 8 p.m. July 31, 2011, until 1 p.m. the next day.

In a recording of Sampson's interview with the older daughter, conducted right after she found the baby dead, she said she last fed Alejandra between 8 and 9 p.m. on July 31 and then watched "The Glee Project" on TV. Online reports on that TV episode show it aired at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

But in an Aug. 12 interview with a service worker specializing in questioning children, the girl said she fed the baby again at 12:30 a.m. and changed the infant's diaper. Assistant District Attorney Letitia Sikes twice tried to introduce testimony regarding how investigators determine whether someone is lying after being coached to respond in a follow-up interview, but defense attorney Mike Garner raised objections Judge Gil McBride sustained.

Left unchallenged was testimony that Shah and her teen daughter fed Alejandra not on a schedule, but only when the baby cried, and she rarely did.

Shah told Sampson the baby slept "all the time."

Garner's questioning grew contentious as he cross-examined Penny Green, formerly with the state Department of Family and Children Services, whom Sikes used as an expert witness. Green pointed out hazards in police photographs of Alejandra's crib, in which the infant was left to sleep in a baby car seat under a blanket.

Green said that blanket was long and thick enough to smother a baby. She also criticized a necklace left around the infant's neck. "No necklace is appropriate for a child that age to wear," she said. A necklace could strangle a baby, she said.

Garner challenged Green's view that no teenager should be left to care for a premature infant. Shah had four other children, including a 2-year-old and an autistic son, and had only the oldest child to help her, he said.

Green said a teen may help care for a premature infant, but should not be tasked with the entire responsibility.

"A preemie infant is not a dog. You don't take it and put it down when you want to," she said.

Tegrin Averett, a social worker formerly with The Medical Center's neonatal unit, testified Shah was never at the hospital when doctors making daily rounds came to check on Alejandra, who was born Dec. 5, 2010, after 27 weeks in the womb.

Dr. Maurice Chen, who treated the infant, said Alejandra weighed about 1 pound, 14 ounces at birth, and had underdeveloped lungs, typical of a premature infant. But she gained weight and began breathing on her own while in the neonatal intensive care unit, and weighed about 4 pounds when she left the hospital in March 2011.

Her initial follow-up visits showed average weight gain typical of a recovering preemie, but her weight then began to decline rapidly after a visit on April 11, 2011, he said. As she lost weight, her length and head circumference held steady, an indication she was not getting enough calories.

Chen agreed when Garner asked whether a chronic lung disease could cause the weight loss. Babies with poor lung function burn more calories struggling to breathe, he said. But the physician noted again that Alejandra's breathing issues had resolved themselves before her discharge from the hospital.

Upon her death, Alejandra weighed a little more than 9 pounds, authorities said.

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