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Accused Dad: Keep Boy on Life Support

Possible murder charge hinges on the appeals court's ruling on an order to disconnect.

February 21, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for an Orange County father accused of assaulting his infant son urged an appeals court Thursday to keep the boy hooked up to life-support, a decision that could determine whether the father faces child abuse or murder charges.

Christopher Ibarra has spent more than 14 months on a ventilator and feeding machine during his parents' legal battle over whether doctors should disconnect the life-sustaining equipment.

Christopher's mother, Tamara Sepulveda, has fought for more than one year to allow her son to die, but his father has opposed the effort from his cell at the Orange County Jail.

Prosecutors allege that the boy's father, Moises Ibarra, shook and beat his son so severely in December 2001 that the child, then 3 months old, was left on the brink of death.

The former Cypress resident faces 13 years and eight months in prison if convicted of felony child abuse, compared to a potential life sentence for murder if his son dies.

John L. Dodd, the lawyer representing Christopher's father, told an appeals court panel in Santa Ana that a lower court judge who ordered the life-support machines turned off did not have legal authority to handle the case.

He also said the court had not fully explored the mother's contention that her son is of Native American heritage. If so, the boy's tribe might have the right to appoint a guardian, further complicating the court's decision about continuing Christopher's life-support.

"I'm not arguing the substance. I'm arguing the procedure," Dodd told a three-member panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal.

Dodd argued that the court should treat the case as seriously as it would a death penalty case, because a child's life depends on the court's decision.

Justice William Bedsworth scoffed at that comparison.

"In death penalty cases, we aren't dealing with people whose only life experience is pain," Bedsworth said.

At a hearing last year, doctors testified that they believe Christopher can feel pain as he lies in his bed in a Tustin hospital.

The boy's bones have become extremely fragile, and some have broken because of his sedentary state. A recent diaper change caused his hip to dislocate.

A lawyer representing the boy's interests before the appeals court said that one of Christopher's nurses expressed frustration over the prolonged legal battle.

"She said, 'Why is this happening? ... Why you, meaning all of the lawyers and all of the judges, are taking so long. This is cruel,' " said attorney K. Murphy Mallinger.

"Miss Sepulveda is very frustrated in that it's taking a long time. She'd like to see Christopher's suffering come to an end," said Donna Chirco, the mother's attorney.

The appeals court has been asked to rule on the matter quickly. The decision will probably be reviewed by the state Supreme Court, attorneys said.

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