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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Girl's Death Can't Just Be Forgotten, With No Charges or Explanation

May 11, 2003|Dana Parsons

The little girl's death must be accounted for.

She can't die in her crib and take evidence of physical abuse to her grave -- and simply be forgotten without charges being filed against someone, or someone offering a good explanation why not.

But that's where things stand today, nearly 14 months after the death of Samantha Gutierrez.

A pathologist who did the autopsy for the coroner's office has testified that the year-old girl died of starvation brought on by parental neglect.

He also found hemorrhaging on her scalp and an injury to her colon that he said could only have come from a blow to her abdomen. He ruled that the "manner of death" was a homicide.

Two doctors testifying for the parents at a hearing to determine if they should retain custody of their other three children disputed the pathologist's findings about starvation.

One of them also disagreed that the child suffered injuries from blunt traumas, but acknowledged that the child had been subjected to "rough handling" and had been neglected and physically abused. Samantha's siblings were removed from their home.

Obviously not satisfied with the findings of the coroner's office, the Orange County district attorney's office got the case from Anaheim police several months ago.

A police spokesman says the district attorney's office has, from time to time, asked for more investigation, but says the case now appears to be stymied by the conflicting testimony of doctors.

When I ask if it's possible no murder charges will be filed, police spokesman Rick Martinez says, "That's certainly a possibility, but we're not saying that's going to happen." Even in the absence of murder charges, lesser charges could be filed, he says.

So, what is the district attorney's thinking? Is he unsure whom to charge? Is he uncomfortable with the pathologist's findings? Is he uncertain that he could prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt? Does he think a murder was committed? Any crime?

I tried to find out, but the D.A.'s office refuses to comment. The public can only wonder what's happening with the investigation of baby Samantha.

One interested party is Richard Chavez, an official at a home for abused children and an Anaheim city councilman. Coincidentally, he's a former firefighter and a member of the paramedic crew that responded the morning Samantha was found dead. Since that day in March 2002, the case has stuck in his mind and heart.

The whole case frustrates him, starting with what he thinks is a flawed system of communication between the Police Department and social workers who investigate child abuse.

Nor does Chavez think the case is all that complicated, noting that a Juvenile Court judge has ruled that the parents bear responsibility for the child's death; an appellate court upheld the finding.

The rulings, he says, indicate the child was "battered, mistreated and neglected.... With that, I think it's not that complicated to move forward with charges of one sort or another."

While things are not always quite so simple, the silence from the district attorney's office is deafening. In other, more high-profile cases, we've seen law enforcement and prosecutors stand at lecterns in front of microphones and discuss ongoing investigations. No one is asking the D.A. to taint the case -- merely to acknowledge that the death of a 1-year-old with signs of abuse hasn't been ignored.

By contrast, the county's director of Child and Family Services spoke with me at some length about the situation. Prevented from discussing particulars, Michael Riley lamented the child's death and said his case workers knew about reports of alleged abuse.

He detailed the complexities of deciding both how and whether to intervene in alleged abuse cases and of the staggering numbers -- more than 26,000 children, last year, with which his department comes into contact.

Not referring specifically to baby Samantha, Riley says, "Sometimes, things go awry, and when they do, sometimes children die. That's a very sad situation and we do everything we can to avoid it."

Such cases can be tough and less than clear-cut. Deciding whether to file charges isn't always painting by numbers.

For baby Samantha, though, people just want to know what's going on. They want to know, 14 months after she died, whether anyone is responsible for it.

"We don't want her to be forgotten," Chavez says. "It's painful enough to know she was ignored when she was crying for help as a baby. We don't want her to be ignored now."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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