The Associated Press
Created: January 09, 2021 10:21 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court on Friday overturned the child abuse convictions of an Albuquerque man in the 2015 death of an infant, prompting the state’s top prosecutor to voice immediate concerns about the ability to hold child abusers accountable.
The divided court ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to support Christopher Garcia’s convictions of intentional child abuse resulting in death by endangerment through medical neglect.
The court’s majority said there was no question that Isaac Arevalos’ injuries were severe and resulted in his death but for the conviction to stand, prosecutors needed to prove that the 14-month-old boy would not have died absent the defendant’s failure to seek medical care.
The court ordered dismissal of the charges against Garcia, who had been sentenced to life in prison plus an additional four years, to avoid a double jeopardy violation.
“New Mexico is already one of the most dangerous states in the nation for children, and this ruling will make it even more difficult to hold child abusers accountable,” state Attorney General Hector Balderas told The Associated Press. “The Legislature should immediately review our child abuse statutes to address this ruling and give law enforcement any tool necessary to prosecute child abusers.”
Garcia and his wife were babysitting when he said the boy fell from a bed and struck his head. Court records say the boy had multiple bruises to his head and body, and medical experts testified during trial that the location of the bruises indicated that they must have been the result of more than one impact.
According to court records, Garcia did not call for emergency medical assistance but rather returned the child to the mother and urged her not to tell police that the boy had been with him and his wife. The mother called paramedics, but the boy died two days later of brain injuries related to oxygen deprivation.
“We hold the state failed to present sufficient evidence to prove that defendant caused Isaac’s death by medical neglect or that defendant and his wife agreed to abuse Isaac,” Justice Barbara J. Vigil wrote. “We are reminded in this case of our responsibility to ensure that convictions are supported by the evidence and not merely by speculation or conjecture.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Thomson concluded there was sufficient evidence to support Garcia’s child abuse conviction but there should be a new trial on the charge. The justice also took issue with the majority’s test for determining whether a person charged with child abuse is legally responsible for the victim’s death because of medical neglect.
“I believe it sets an unachievable evidentiary standard,” he wrote. “The possibility that a defendant is culpable because the identified conduct is a significant cause of death is carved out, and a defendant must now be the sole cause of death.”
The court was unanimous in its decision to overturn Garcia’s conviction of conspiracy to commit child abuse.
“This has been a heartbreaking and tragic case,” said attorney Justine Fox-Young, who represented Garcia. “We appreciate that the Supreme Court took a hard look at the legal issues involved and reversed Mr. Garcia’s convictions.”
It’s not clear how soon Garcia could be released from custody.
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