The state Court of Appeals has voided the most serious conviction against Stephen Casaus after finding that prosecutors were not able to prove his failure to seek medical help for 9-year-old Omaree Varela resulted in the boy’s death.
Last week’s opinion could mean that Casaus will see 18 years cut from the 30-year sentence he received in the case surrounding the death of Varela, his stepson, in December 2013.
At trial, Casaus’ defense team said he was in the bathroom using heroin when the boy’s mother beat him to death, but a jury found Casaus guilty of child abuse recklessly caused or permitted resulting in death, along with four lesser charges. His remaining convictions were affirmed by the court.
A spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office said prosecutors plan to ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision to vacate the conviction, though they were pleased that his convictions on the lesser charges were upheld. If the Supreme Court refuses to consider the opinion, the District Attorney’s Office will not have a second opportunity to try Casaus on the charge, according to a spokesman from that office.
“The state’s theory was that our client let this kid die,” said Tom Clark, who defended Casaus with Cindy Leos, now a state district judge. “That he was reckless because they didn’t call for medical assistance soon enough, that he knew or should have known that the child was terminally injured.”
In his appeal, Casaus’ attorney argued that the state did not offer sufficient evidence that medical neglect was a significant cause of Omaree’s death.
The state Supreme Court found in a previous case that under a theory of medical neglect resulting in death, the state must prove by substantial evidence that medical neglect was at least a significant cause of the child’s death, the Court of Appeals opinion says. To do that, the Supreme Court found, the state has to show that if a defendant had obtained medical care for the child earlier, the child would have lived or would have had a significantly better chance of living.
The Court of Appeals concluded that prosecutors in Casaus’ case did not do that.
The court found that the state did show that Omaree’s blood loss might have occurred over an extended period of time, and that generally people are more likely to survive a traumatic injury when they are treated within an hour.
“It did not, however, provide any evidence that child’s injuries were treatable, that child’s life would have been saved or that he would have had a better chance of survival with timely medical intervention, or when that intervention would have been necessary to improve his chances of survival,’ according to the opinion.
Omaree’s autopsy found he died of blunt force trauma and showed that he had lost 25 percent of his blood volume to internal bleeding, and had injuries to his head, chest, abdomen, back, arms, knee and tongue.
The boy became the face of child abuse in New Mexico, and his death triggered a series of reforms at the state’s Children Youth and Families Department.
Synthia Varela-Casaus, his mother, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and lesser charges and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She told reporters shortly after her arrest that she kicked the 9-year-old “the wrong way.”
Along with child abuse resulting in death, Casaus was found guilty of tampering with evidence, child abuse, and two counts of bribery of a witness.
Casaus has also been sentenced to nine years in a state court trafficking case, in addition to a 10-year sentence for a federal firearms conviction, according to court documents.