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Supreme Court reverses conviction in 2015 child abuse case

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In 2016, Christopher Garcia was sentenced to more than three decades in prison for not calling 911 after a 14-month-old boy he had been babysitting was fatally injured.

On Friday, the New Mexico Supreme Court wiped all that away by reversing the 34-year-old’s conviction.

Christopher Garcia

The court’s decision, following a yearslong appeal, states that there was insufficient evidence to prove “medical neglect” in the 2015 death of Isaac Arevalos. The court dismissed the child abuse and conspiracy charges to “avoid a double jeopardy violation.”

“This has been a heartbreaking and tragic case,” said Justine Fox-Young, Garcia’s attorney. “We appreciate that the Supreme Court took a hard look at the legal issues involved and reversed Mr. Garcia’s convictions.”

Attorney General Hector Balderas struck a different tone on the reversal.

“New Mexico is already one of the most dangerous states in the nation for children and this ruling will make it even more difficult to hold child abusers accountable,” he said in a statement. “The Legislature should immediately review our child abuse statutes to address this ruling and give law enforcement any tool necessary to prosecute child abusers.”

In March 2015, Garcia and his wife, Lizy Portillo, 31, were babysitting Arevalos when the boy was injured and lost consciousness at their South Valley home. Garcia did not call 911 or seek medical help and told the child’s mother that the boy “struck his head on a nightstand” and asked her not to tell police the child was with the couple.

The boy suffered brain injuries and was taken off life support two days later.

A jury acquitted Garcia of inflicting, or permitting Portillo to inflict, the fatal injuries, but found him guilty of child abuse by “medical neglect.” He was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Portillo later pleaded no contest to child abuse and conspiracy charges, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. During Portillo’s sentencing hearing, according to a Journal report, it was alleged Garcia had thrown Arevalos into the air with such force that the child hit the ceiling before the boy bounced off a sofa and went “limp.”

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil called Arevalos’ death “undeniably tragic,” but said prosecutors did not prove that a delay in medical care led to the child’s death.

“We are reminded in this case of our responsibility to ensure that convictions are supported by the evidence and not merely by speculation or conjecture,” Vigil wrote in the opinion.

She later added, “to convict Defendant, the jury was required to speculate that Isaac might have survived had Defendant immediately called 911.”

Vigil wrote that no medical expert testified with “medical certainty” that Arevalos would have lived with earlier medical care.

The court’s decision was not, however, unanimous as Justice David Thomson did not agree with the decision to dismiss the child abuse conviction. He wrote there was sufficient evidence to charge Garcia with child abuse and that there should be a new trial.

Thomson wrote that the jury instructions in the initial case created “juror confusion and misdirection” by not explaining how Garcia could be considered the cause of the baby’s death by medical neglect.

Thompson also wrote that he worried the court’s opinion regarding medical neglect will create a “number of perverse incentives.”

“It appears to incentivize an abuser to deny a victim medical care,” he wrote. “In the absence of any medical care, the question of when an injury would have been survivable (and at one point the injury was certainly fatal) becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to answer with any degree of certainty.”

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