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Infant Murder Charges Dropped

June 11, 2003|Zeke Minaya and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

In a defeat for prosecutors, an Orange County judge tossed out murder charges Tuesday against a Santa Ana woman accused of fatally squeezing her 9-month-old niece, saying the county coroner had failed to establish a cause of death.

Superior Court Judge John Conley brought an abrupt halt to Teresa Hurtado's preliminary hearing, telling the 20-year-old there was not enough evidence to bind her over for trial and that the coroner's report for her niece, Brenda Martinez, was inconclusive.

Brenda's mother and other family members have rallied to Hurtado's defense, saying she was simply trying to comfort the crying baby by hugging her and only later noticed that she had stopped breathing.

But police and prosecutors alleged that the diminutive woman, who often cared for Brenda, smothered the child so that she and her own year-old son could sleep.

As the judge issued his ruling in a Santa Ana courtroom, Hurtado, who has been held on $1-million bail since her May 5 arrest, appeared not to understand what he was saying. But after one of her attorneys leaned over and clasped her hands in victory, she seemed relieved and smiled.

Family members fought back tears and hugged one another.

"I always thought that God would help us," said Isidro Castrejon, her husband. "I knew she would never do anything to hurt the child."

In his ruling, Conley said the prosecution's case was critically weakened because the baby's death certificate "does not list the cause of death as natural, accidental or homicidal in nature, just 'pending investigation.' " Defense lawyers argued the child probably died of undetected health problems, possibly congestive heart failure.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Conway said he will reevaluate the case when, and if, the coroner determines a cause of death.

While the judge dismissed charges and ordered Hurtado released, she remained jailed Tuesday evening on an immigration hold. She is suspected of being in the country illegally and may be deported. The baby's mother, who is Hurtado's sister-in-law, expressed mixed emotions after the decision.

"I'm very happy because I've always known that Teresa is innocent," said Bertha Castrejon. "But I'm upset with the police because they have no idea how they've traumatized our family."

Before the preliminary hearing, Hurtado's attorney said they were considering seeking the court's permission to exhume the body for further examination if existing autopsy results failed to show their client's innocence.

The baby's mother supported exhumation, the attorneys said, because she believes her daughter died of undetected health problems while in the care of her aunt. The mother left her baby in her sister-in-law's care because she held two jobs, one at a fast-food restaurant and the other doing building maintenance.

At Tuesday's hearing, the county coroner's office pathologist, Dr. Aruna Singhania, eliminated shaken-baby syndrome as a cause of Brenda's death. But she added the baby was healthy and showed no signs of the ailments the defense contended.

Singhania did not rule out suffocation as a possible cause of death, though she acknowledged that the usual signs of trauma associated with suffocating were not present in the baby's body.

In her autopsy report, Singhania found "no trauma to the nose or mouth," and when examining the baby's body, "the upper and lower extremities fail to reveal any trauma."

Hurtado maintained she was only trying to calm the crying infant when the child died. The woman told police that she thought the baby had fallen asleep and that the baby sighed when she was put down. She later noticed the infant was cold, Dolan said.

"Teresa was like a second mom to my daughter," said the baby's mother, who said she never doubted Hurtado's innocence. "She's always been a good caretaker."

Hurtado and Castrejon grew up together in a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero and have remained close friends since childhood. Castrejon moved to California nine years ago but attorneys would not say when or how Hurtado came to the United States.

Hurtado and her husband have a year-old son. Though he is facing the possible deportation of his wife, Isidro Castrejon said he was happy with Tuesday's ruling. "We're going to move ahead now," he said.

Hurtado's attorneys, Brian Oxman and John Patrick Dolan, said it's rare to have a homicide case like this dismissed before it goes to trial.

"It's pretty obvious this was a shoot-first, ask-questions-later prosecution," Dolan said.

Other defense attorneys in Orange County concurred.

"It's kind of unusual the district attorney didn't recognize this problem and decided to continue to push forward on this," attorney Allan Stokke said.

*

Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.

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