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Officer in Murder Case Tells of Child's Earlier Injuries

December 21, 1996|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trying to establish a pattern of abuse, prosecutors offered evidence Friday that the mother of a 2-year-old girl beaten to death this year had admitted two years earlier to forcefully squeezing the child and holding her by the neck.

Gabriela and Rogelio Hernandez, both 18, of Oxnard, are charged with murder and felony child abuse.

Joselin Hernandez died at a friend's birthday party in June of blunt force injuries to her stomach. Her parents have denied any involvement in her slaying.

On Friday, their preliminary hearing began before Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who must decide whether enough evidence exists to warrant a trial.

Oxnard Police Det. Doug Wiley was the first witness to testify, telling Perren about a 1994 incident he investigated after Joselin was admitted to the hospital with a number of serious injuries.

The 6-week-old infant had fractured ribs, broken legs, burns to her hands and feet, bruises, scratches and signs of malnutrition, Wiley said. The tot's liver was also emitting enzymes, which may have been caused by squeezing, he testified.

When Wiley first interviewed Rogelio and Gabriela Hernandez, the parents told him they thought the child may have been burned with battery acid by touching a 12-volt battery.

Wiley said they told him they decided not to take the baby to the hospital because they did not have any money or medical insurance.

Of her other injuries, Rogelio Hernandez said the scratches to his daughter's neck must have been caused by a cat, Wiley said.

Gabriela Hernandez--who was the baby's primary caregiver--told Wiley that she did not know how the baby's ribs were broken.

And both parents told the detective that a bruise to Joselin's head had been there since birth, he testified.

But five days after their initial interview, Wiley said, Gabriela Hernandez modified her story.

"She told me that she could have caused those scratches," Wiley said, explaining that the mother told him that she "holds the baby by the neck when she bathes her and scrubs her very hard."

Gabriela Hernandez also told the detective that a neighbor offered a parenting tip that she practiced: pushing the baby's stomach to clear bowel obstructions.

Using a doll the approximate size of the infant, Wiley explained how the mother told him how she would roll her closed fist over the baby's chest and squeeze hard with her thumbs to relieve the infant's constipation.

She told him that she did this the day the baby was admitted to the hospital, Wiley said. But she denied pressing hard enough to crack the infant's bones.

"She said she did not hear them breaking," he said.

Wiley also used the doll to demonstrate how Rogelio Hernandez explained the burns.

Holding the peach-faced doll on his lap with its face to the floor, Wiley explained the father's theory--that the baby's limbs came in contact with battery acid on stereo equipment.

"Could the injuries have occurred the way he presented them to you?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona asked.

"I didn't think they could," Wiley answered. "I did not feel that each one of her extremities could have come in contact with the battery, maybe one when he turned her, but not all three."

Defense attorneys representing the couple fought hard Friday to keep out testimony about the 1994 injuries and any other incidents that may have occurred before the girl's June 22 death.

But Perren ruled that prosecutors could go back as far as 1994, when Wiley was first called in to investigate what happened to the child.

Prosecutors said the 1994 injuries were "central" to their case.

For six weeks in 1994, Joselin lived with her mother and father and was seriously injured, Corona argued. The tot subsequently lived with her grandmother and flourished in a stable environment, Corona said.

"As soon as she was returned to the defendants," Corona said, "new injuries started popping up. She is injured when she is with them, she is safe when she is not."

The parents, dressed in blue jail clothes, sat between their lawyers and said nothing throughout the hearing. Gabriela Hernandez occasionally leaned forward and rested her elbows on the defense table, but her husband sat motionless throughout the afternoon's testimony.

The hearing is expected to continue next week as prosecutors present a number of witnesses who will testify about a pattern of abuse they contend the parents inflicted upon their daughter--beginning with injuries she suffered as a 6-week-old in July 1994.

The parents face up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted.

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