ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A highly emotionally charged child abuse death case is the hands of a state court jury, which heard two wearying weeks of testimony before the final wrapup on Friday.
Isaac Arevalos, a healthy, happy 14-month-old boy who had just starting to walk died after spending time a year ago with a married couple and their own kids. The two mothers – Isaac’s mom Carmina Vargas and the babysitting mom Lizy Portillo – had become friends at a GED class, and Vargas, who had lost custody of her other children although she still saw them, was happy to have a break from parenting.
Although Portillo faces identical child abuse felonies, the defendant on trial before Judge Cristina Jaramillo is Portillo’s now estranged husband Christopher Garcia, whom Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies identified as the person who inflicted 27 separate injuries to the child’s head – blunt force trauma that shut off oxygen to his brain.
Garcia faces a potential life sentence if convicted of intentionally caused child abuse resulting in death based on six distinct prosecution theories, and a mandatory 18 years if convicted of child abuse resulting in death by medical neglect – either intentional, recklessly caused or recklessly permitted. He’s also charged with conspiracy to commit the abuse.
The child arrived at the University of New Mexico Hospital on March 25, 2015, and died two days later. His organs went to other medically needy children.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Haley Murphy, said that, although Isaac might have survived the blows, he was irretrievably damaged by the time Garcia took him back to his mother in the pre-dawn hours just minutes away from his South Valley home and handed off the baby to her.
Murphy told jurors that probably no one would ever know why, but asserted that Garcia “took actions that resulted in the horrific death of this baby. She (Vargas) delayed the investigation, giving Chris and Lizy time to do whatever they needed in the house.”
Vargas lied to investigators for six hours, telling them Isaac had been with her – because Garcia told her she’d lose custody of him, Murphy said.
Vargas, whose initial charges were dismissed on procedural grounds, testified with immunity and charges are likely to be refiled.
Garcia did not call 911 while the baby’s brain shut down, then took the baby back to Vargas, who in turn took him to the home of his biological father, and from there paramedics were summoned. Garcia then lied to prosecutors and continued changing his story over hours of interrogation, Murphy said. He never invoked his right to an attorney or halted the interview.
Garcia’s attorney Kari Morrissey hammered the state’s case in her closing argument as “shocking” in its lack of evidence.
“Your responsibility is to let a different jury, on a different day, decide on the person who is responsible,” Morrissey said. She said the state presented multiple theories of the case because they don’t know what happened.
“There are so many missing pieces to this puzzle,” Morrissey said. “They have to show not that someone inflicted injuries, but that Christopher Garcia did. There’s not a single shred of evidence that that man killed Isaac.”
Morrissey put her client on the stand Thursday and he denied harming Isaac, who he said had fallen out of bed and lost consciousness for perhaps 30 seconds before coming around and being given a bath by Portillo. He said a detective who brought him in for questioning wouldn’t let him explain what happened, and the officer’s anger about the chid became evident in what Garcia said was the threatening tenor of the interrogation.
Murphy, the prosecutor, said Garcia’s preparation was evident in his testimony, which she said seemed “almost coached.”
“At a minimum,” she said, “he let a baby be beaten to death and didn’t get him medical assistance.”