Mario M. Contreras, 35, of rural Waubay is charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault resulting in serious bodily injury in the death of his daughter, Aleeyah Cook. His federal court trial in Sioux Falls started Tuesday.
Prosecuting attorneys contend that Contreras, aggravated by running late for work among other factors, assaulted the girl by punching her in the head on the morning of Jan. 9, 2012, at his home. Cook died two days later at a Fargo, N.D., hospital after being taken off life support.
On Wednesday, Dr. Kenneth Snell, the current coroner and a witness for the prosecution, testified that there were 18 internal contusions all around Cook's head. That many injuries on multiple parts of the scalp are not consistent with her falling to the floor from 5 feet or less, he said.
A physician who conducted Cook's autopsy testified similarly Tuesday.
The defense contends that Cook fell from a kitchen chair or table after Contreras left her to tend to another child. Contreras has said he heard a thud and, when he got to Cook, found she was unresponsive, according to testimony in the case.
Snell, though, said that if Cook were sitting on a chair with a seat that was about 2 feet off the ground, her injuries wouldn't be so severe that she would be immediately unresponsive.
He said the odds of a child dying from such a fall are less than 1 in a million, according to information he's read. Another doctor who testified Wednesday also said the odds of death from such a fall are about 1 in a million.
Snell did not examine the girl, but rather read the autopsy and various reports and looked at images taken of the girl after her death. He agreed with the physician who conducted the autopsy on Cook and listed on the death certificate the cause of death as a “traumatic head injury” and the manner of death as a “homicide.”
But Dr. Brad Randall, also a forensic pathologist and the former Minnehaha County coroner, said there could have been other factors involved in Cook's death. He also reviewed the autopsy, various medical and police records and images of Cook.
Randall, a defense witness, said there's no way to know that Cook didn't have pre-existing injuries. Others testified that she was lethargic and vomiting in the days before Jan. 9. Those could be symptoms that Cook suffered from a previous concussion, Randall said.
He said a short fall from a chair wouldn't likely kill a 2-year-old. But if the child had a previous concussion, it increases the likelihood of death or an injury to the brain. When there's a head injury, the brain swells, and it decreases the ability of the brain to absorb a subsequent injury, he said.
Physicians who testified for the prosecution said that Cook's internal head injuries likely occurred within a few days of her death. But Randall said it's very difficult to determine the timing of such injuries. Contreras took custody of the girl since Jan. 4. The girl's mom let him do so regularly.
Randall testified that there were no witnesses to Cook's injuries, nobody who saw Contreras abuse her. But he also conceded that her injuries could have been caused by punching to the head.
Sam Khoroosi, Contreras' defense attorney, put forth a theory that Cook could have crawled up on and sat or stood on the kitchen table. Were she standing on the table, the top of her head would have been roughly 5 and a half feet off of the ground. Such a fall could have caused a more serious injury, according to the defense.
On Tuesday, an FBI agent testified that Contreras told him that Cook had also fallen from a chair to the floor during a Jan. 6 wake while somebody else was watching the girl and that she had previously fallen in the shower. On Wednesday, Khoroosi noted that Cook's family members sometimes referred to her as clumsy.
Shannon Sine, Cook's mother, also testified. She and Contreras were never married. She said that Cook once referred to the man who is now Sine's husband as her daddy. Prosecutors argue that was one of the reasons Contreras grew angry with the girl. Sine also said that Cook could be fussy in the morning, another factor that could have led to Contreras losing his temper, according to the prosecution. Contreras was running late for work and was watching Cook and three other kids the morning of Jan. 9, according to testimony.
Sine also testified that in August 2011, she found a bruise on Cook's behind and that Contreras admitted he spanked her and apologized.
After the prosecution rested Wednesday afternoon, Khoroosi asked for a judgment of acquittal, a request Judge Lawrence Piersol denied because he said that case was substantial enough to go to the jury. Such requests to have charges dismissed are common during trials.
With the jury dismissed Wednesday, Khoroosi said that Cook had pre-existing medical conditions before Contreras took temporary custody of her on Jan. 4. He said the girl was injured in Sine's home.
The defense was dealt a blow when Piersol ruled that Randall could not testify about the possibility of Cook suffering from hydrocephalus, more commonly known as “water on the brain” or there being too much fluid around the brain. The condition was not noted, as required for testimony, in a report filed before the trial, Piersol said.
Testimony is scheduled to begin again at 9 this morning. Khoroosi said he expects to be finished presenting his case by mid-afternoon. Given that, Piersol said that closing arguments will likely be set for Friday morning, then the jury will get the case.
If convicted of murder, Contreras would face a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum term of 30 years in prison.
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