Boy’s Life Support Ordered Removed
An Orange County judge on Thursday ordered doctors to shut down life-support machines that are keeping a gravely injured Anaheim infant alive, a decision that could ultimately lead to a murder charge against the boy’s father.
The parents of Christopher Ibarra have fought over the boy’s fate for the last 10 months. His mother, Tamara Sepulveda, asked the judge to allow her 14-month-old son, who suffered severe brain injuries last year, to die.
His father, Moises Ibarra, who is awaiting trial for allegedly causing the boy’s injuries, wanted his son to remain on life support.
Superior Court Judge Richard Behn announced his decision in a hushed Orange courtroom about six miles from a Tustin hospital where Christopher lay motionless under fluorescent lights, machines pumping food and oxygen into his tiny, swollen body.
The judge based his ruling on testimony from doctors who said they hold no hope for recovery. They said the boy is so fragile that his hips have become displaced and chores as simple as changing his diaper have broken his bones.
“All the life-sustaining treatment is doing is keeping this shell of what used to be Christopher alive,” the judge said.
Acknowledging the weighty legal issues behind the decision, the judge suspended his order to allow Moises Ibarra to file an appeal. If the child lives that long, the case will probably end up before the state Supreme Court and, perhaps, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not just Christopher’s fate hinges on the outcome of the court battle. Prosecutors have said that if Christopher dies, they almost certainly will pursue a murder charge against his father.
Moises Ibarra, 24, was arrested Dec. 20 and charged with felony child abuse for allegedly slamming his son’s head into his crib, causing the brain injury.
Ibarra’s attorney said he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling.
“Mr. Ibarra loves his son and was hoping one day he might recover,” said Assistant Public Defender David Dworakowski, noting his client has denied hurting the baby. “He’s devastated by the court’s ruling.”
Sepulveda told reporters outside the courthouse that she hopes the judge’s ruling will one day allow her son “to go to heaven.”
“He’s not there. He’s not the same child he was before,” said Sepulveda, who wore a “Prevent Child Abuse” pin on her lapel. “I’m not angry. I’m just hurt. I’m miserable this whole thing happened.”
Behn ordered doctors to remove a ventilator that helps the boy breathe but said he wants them to continue providing food, water and pain medication. At last week’s hearing, one doctor testified that he would consider it cruel to cut off food, leaving the child to starve to death.
The doctors also testified that Christopher lies motionless most of the day.
The only response he gives to pain or light is an increased heart rate, sweating and tightening of his muscles. They could not predict how long the boy could survive without a ventilator but said he has breathed on his own for several minutes at a time.
Attorneys say it could take at least three months before the issue is resolved on appeal.
Lawyers and legal experts praised the judge for staying his order until higher courts have a chance to review the case.
“This is like an execution. All Behn is saying is, ‘This is uncharted territory. What if the Court of Appeal disagrees with me and by the time they intervene the baby’s dead?’ ” said Richard Schwartzberg, an Orange County lawyer who specializes in appeals cases. “This is a life we’re talking about. That makes perfect sense.”
Sepulveda’s lawyer said she expects the decision to be upheld.
“The judge really backed up the decision he made,” said attorney Donna Chirco. “I don’t see why a different court would overturn him.”
Moises Ibarra, held at Orange County Jail, is scheduled to stand trial on felony child abuse charge in January. Even if he is convicted of child abuse and sentenced to prison, prosecutors could step in months or years later and charge him with murder if the boy dies, attorneys said.
Dworakowski said his client will be acquitted at trial and pointed out that the facts of the case are far from clear.
At a hearing this year, Sepulveda--who has a learning disability--said she caused her son’s injuries. She later said she misunderstood the question.
Asked about those statements at a later hearing, the mother invoked her 5th Amendment protections from self-incrimination.
“There’s a lot more to this story than has been published in the press ....My client looks forward to his trial,” Dworakowski said.