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Father Charged With Murder

Filing against the parent of a child kept on life support 17 months surprises coroner's officials, who haven't determined the cause.

May 17, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

In a move that surprised officials at the Orange County coroner's office, prosecutors announced Friday that they will charge the father of a 20-month-old boy who died last week with murder even though an autopsy failed to determine the cause of death.

The new charges against Moises Ibarra were outlined in a complaint unsealed Friday. The district attorney's office also announced that it would ask that his bail be increased to $1 million.

Ibarra was arrested in December 2001 and charged with child abuse for allegedly beating his son, Christopher, who appeared to have been shaken and thrown into his crib.

The child was 3 months old at the time and suffered irreversible brain damage.

He was kept on life support until May 10, when doctors removed the ventilator and feeding tube that were keeping him alive. Christopher died 15 minutes later.

Ibarra is to be arraigned Monday on additional charges of murder, assault on a child resulting in death and endangerment of a child resulting in great bodily harm.

He has been in jail for 17 months without going to trial, unable to post $250,000 bail.

An autopsy on Christopher's body was inconclusive. Deputy Coroner Rod Thomas said Friday that "weeks of additional testing are necessary to learn what killed baby Christopher."

He said that the district attorney's decision to charge Ibarra with murder caught him by surprise. "We aren't prepared to say that the death was a homicide," Thomas said. "I don't know why the district attorney did what he did, but he's got that prerogative. He can charge you with murder without having a body too."

He said that as pathologists examine the autopsy results further, "we try not to look at it as a homicide."

"We're compelled to look at everything and keep an open mind," Thomas said. "Other causes have to be excluded first. Did he die of pneumonia, the effects of medication or possibly natural causes? There are many things unrelated to the beating that have to be excluded."

The Orange County district attorney's office declined to comment.

Defense attorney David Dworakowski said he did not know why prosecutors decided to enhance the charges against Ibarra before the cause of death is known. If the district attorney has new information, the office has not shared it with him, he said, not even the autopsy report.

"I have requested by discovery to be given any information about what the coroner found. I have been given none of that information," Dworakowski said. "This case has been a complicated one with many angles. It has never been as simple as has been reported in the media. It's a case riddled with inconsistencies."

Laurence Benner, criminal law professor at California Western School of Law, said prosecutors need only probable cause to file murder charges against Ibarra.

"A final autopsy report would be good. But all a prosecutor has to argue is that death was caused by a criminal act, and all he needs is probable cause to file murder charges," he said.

"The key question here is whether the baby was clinically dead at the time [that life support was ended]. If the brain has no cognitive function, the argument can be made that a person is legally dead, even if he has a heartbeat."

Ibarra's attorney could argue that death was caused by the removal of life support, Benner said, but proving that to a jury can be a difficult task.

Christopher was kept alive 17 months while his parents engaged in a court battle over his fate.

His mother, Tamara Sepulveda, wanted the comatose child disconnected from life support so he could "go to heaven." But Ibarra objected, saying he hoped for a miracle recovery.

Superior Court Judge Richard E. Behn ordered the ventilator and feeding tube disconnected in October. But he withdrew the order so Ibarra could appeal. Appeals were exhausted last month, and Christopher was taken off life support last weekend.

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