Testimony: Bugs fed on dead infant before body found

Seven-month-old Alejandra Molina lay dead so long in the summer of 2011 that insects had begun to feed on her skin by the time her teenaged sister discovered the baby's body.

The infant died under a blanket, in a baby car seat set in a crib, in a room with a malfunctioning air conditioner as temperatures outside soared into the upper 90s.

Such details came up Tuesday in the trial of mother Jessica Shah, who's charged with felony murder on the prosecution's contention she committed first-degree child cruelty by depriving Alejandra of sustenance until the baby died from dehydration.

"Sixteen hours," Assistant District Attorney Letitia Sikes declared in her opening argument, saying that's how long Alejandra lay unattended in her room at 3818 Third Ave., a rental house with a malfunctioning air conditioner.

The teen sister last fed the infant between 8 and 9 p.m. July 31, 2011, testimony showed. The mother left the next morning to visit a bank to get rent money to pay the landlord, a heating and air-conditioning repairman who was to come that day to fix the air conditioner. The teen daughter tasked with feeding and changing Alejandra slept until around noon.

When the teenager awoke, Shah asked her whether she had checked on the baby. When the older daughter walked into the baby's room and saw the infant, she fell to her knees crying.

That was about 1 p.m. Aug. 1. Brian Wilson, formerly a medic with the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, said he arrived at 1:35 p.m. and saw the child had been dead too long to attempt resuscitation.

The blood no longer circulating in her body had begun to settle and pool against the skin, which had abrasions where bugs had been eating at it, he said.

Defense attorney Mike Garner objected repeatedly when Sikes questioned emergency workers about Shah's demeanor.

Wilson said Shah had an "absent, flat affect." Police Cpl. Dawn Tuning said Shah "appeared to be very distant," adding, "Specifically what struck my mind was that I didn't see her shed any tears."

Garner complained witnesses were elaborating on such observations to the point of speculating on Shah's level of concern for the child. Superior Court Judge Gil McBride agreed.

To the jury Garner stressed that the question of Shah's culpability hinged on whether she "intentionally" or "willfully" deprived the baby of fluids. Garner said Alejandra was born prematurely, after just 27 weeks in the womb, on Dec. 5, 2010. She weighed about 2 pounds, and her lungs had not developed. The family said the baby kept wheezing over the months that followed.

That's why she was left to sleep in a car seat, Garner said: It helped her breathe.

Though the home's air-conditioning wasn't fully functional, it did provide some relief, and the house was well shaded, with trees all around it, he said.

Alejandra's death was accidental, and the medical examiner's autopsy report says so, he argued.

The report by Dr. Stacey Desamours of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation does list "accident" as the manner of death and "dehydration and probably hypothermia" as the cause. But Sikes noted that's an opinion, and it's the jury's job to decide whether the death was an accident or a case of intentional neglect.

Desamours took the stand Tuesday afternoon, testifying the baby was severely dehydrated, and would not have died had she been given sufficient fluids. The doctor could not say when the baby died, noting elevated temperatures in a room can boost the body's rate of decomposition, but it likely was within hours of the teen sister's finding the body.

A point of contention Tuesday was whether the sister, then-14, should have been left in charge of the premature infant and three siblings.

Garner contended teenagers typically work as baby-sitters, so it's not uncommon. A foster parent now caring for the older daughter and two brothers disagreed.

"I think it's wrong to leave a teenager alone with a small baby," she testified.

Garner also argued Alejandra may have had other health complications that accelerated the dehydration, to which infants are more susceptible. Profuse sweating, diarrhea, vomiting and infections aggravate the condition, he noted. One symptom is "dark yellow or orange-colored" urine, which was present in Alejandra's diaper, he said.

He said also that Shah's concern for the baby was evident in her making a doctor's appointment for the following Aug. 6 because the infant's intake of baby formula had declined.

Desamours said the infant had no history of vomiting or diarrhea. Two medics testifying Tuesday said they saw no evidence of vomit or diarrhea at the scene.

Police Cpl. Tuning said the family member most distraught by the baby's death was the sister: "The teenage child was very upset."

The teenager told the court how delighted she was when Alejandra first came home from the hospital: "I was happy. I always wanted a baby sister, and she was here."

The day before the infant died, the sister entertained Alejandra with finger puppets, one with the head of an elephant, with which she would touch Alejandra on the nose, making her smile.

"I liked playing with her," she said.