2 Tucson-area cases show difficulty in prosecuting toddler deaths

Valery Arrieta knows little about what actually happened that day at the babysitter’s house, the day her toddler daughter Mia was put down for a nap and never woke up.

Arrieta said no one from the in-home day care called her at work to let her know what happened. Instead, she found out when a relative went by to pick up his kids and, distressed at finding an ambulance there for Mia, called her himself.

When Arrieta arrived at University Medical Center, where Mia was pronounced dead, the child’s face showed her earlier distress. On her eyelids, forehead and a cheek, there were petechiae, the little red marks that often appear when someone has been strangled or choked.

Mia’s brain was swollen, the autopsy report would later show, and there were bruises on her scalp and bleeding underneath it. The skin along the underside of her tongue was torn, suggesting someone had roughly pushed something in her mouth, said Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza, who reviews Arizona’s child fatalities each year to track trends and read the autopsy report at the Arizona Daily Star’s request.

The medical examiner’s finding: homicide by asphyxiation.

But in the end, no one was held accountable for Mia Castanon’s 2014 death, at least not in the way her grieving parents had expected. Especially not after they learned the child-care providers delayed seeking help for their daughter and had attempted to discard her blanket.

It’s not an uncommon outcome for alleged child-abuse homicides, which prosecutors say are among the most difficult to take to court.

In some cases, witnesses stick together and protect each other. In others, proving when and how injuries were inflicted, or if an injury was intentional, can be difficult.

In Mia’s case, five adults at the west-side home were eventually arrested, including the head of the day care, Deana Soto. She was originally charged with negligent homicide.

After the case wound through court for a year, Soto pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of endangerment, for which she spent 60 days in jail and three years on probation. Now that she’s completed her sentence, Soto’s charge has been changed by court order from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The rest of the people who were there that afternoon were charged with tampering with evidence. One, Francisca Heredia, had her charges dismissed while Ricardo Soto Jr., Guadalupe Soto and Ricardo Soto Sr. eventually pleaded guilty. Like Daena Soto, they have now successfully completed their terms.

The outcome of the case, and the brevity of their sentences, has compounded Arrieta’s overwhelming grief.

“It’s just not fair, these people are living at peace with their children,” she said of her daughter’s former caretakers.

She now finds it difficult to trust people with her remaining child, she said, and she finds it harder still to trust a legal system she believes failed her daughter.

Probation possible in upcoming sentencing

A similar scenario is now unfolding in the case of Tucson toddler Adam Mada, who ingested painkillers and cocaine before he died of ruptured digestive organs, brain swelling and sepsis, a bacterial infection of the bloodstream.

He had 11 rib fractures, according to his autopsy report, five of which likely occurred just before his death.

There were 11 people in a Three Points trailer that night in March 2016 when paramedics found Adam unresponsive.

Adam’s half sister, then about 6, went on to tell detectives that Erick Henry, the children’s uncle by marriage, was “mean” to Adam.

She demonstrated how she said she’d seen Henry punch her baby brother, often in the back, records show.

Six people were eventually charged in Adam’s death. Henry, along with his wife, Maria Alvarez, pleaded guilty earlier this month to child abuse, not for hurting Adam but for failing to seek medical attention on his behalf.

They could receive sentences of up to 3.75 years in prison, or they could be placed on probation, at hearings scheduled for 9 a.m. on March 29.

None of the adults charged in Adam’s and Mia’s cases appear to have implicated anyone else for fatal abuse.

That’s not unusual in child-abuse homicides, said Rachel Mitchell, division chief with the special victims unit at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

“In my experience, child deaths are the most complicated cases to prosecute,” said Mitchell, who has been prosecuting crimes against children for 23 years.

Oftentimes, she said, the witnesses are people who favor the suspect and try to protect that person. And when more than one person was with the child during the day, it can be impossible to prove what actually happened.

“It’s not like it is on TV, where someone says ‘this happened at exactly 3:20 p.m.,’” she said.

Mitchell contrasts child homicides to cases in which an adult dies from a gunshot wound, where the fact the person died from a “traumatic injury” is evident.

The killings of young children and babies, by comparison, start with attorneys needing to first prove there was a traumatic death.

If there is bleeding on the brain, she said as an example, they must prove the timing of the bleeding and who was around at that time.

If the cases do make it to trial, it can also be challenging to persuade jurors that the people or person before them in court could actually harm a child.

“When you read about these stories, it’s one thing,” she said. “When they get in a courtroom, this person becomes very real to them.”

Often, she said, it’s “easier to believe it was just a tragic accident.”

No one charged with inflicting Adam’s injuries

In Adam’s case, unlike Mia’s, there was one person who said she witnessed abuse, but it wasn’t enough to bring the case to trial.

That’s at least, in part, because of what happened in November, when Pima County Superior Court Judge Paul Tang ruled the detective’s interviews of Adam’s sibling could not be used.

The testimony was not essential to the charges, he wrote, and the relevance of what she told sheriff’s deputies might unfairly prejudice those charged.

Without her account, and without anyone else giving an account of what happened, how could prosecutors prove murder?

Without referring to Adam’s case, Deputy County Attorney Alan Goodwin said that in general, in order to prove murder in a child-abuse case, prosecutors either have to show jurors that a defendant intentionally caused the child’s death or that the child was abused under circumstances likely to cause death.

Reckless or negligent abuse doesn’t support a murder charge, he said, even if the child dies.

“I’m limited in what I can say, given that the case is still ongoing,” Goodwin said.

“However, no one was ever charged with inflicting Adam’s injuries. Unfortunately, we may never solve that puzzle.”

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