MODESTO — A judge on Friday entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of an 18-year-old Modesto mother accused of trying to place rat poison in her month-old baby's formula bottle.
Cashel Sophia Phin appeared for an arraignment hearing via closed-circuit television; it's unclear why she did not appear in person.
Phin has been charged with attempted murder, two counts of soliciting to commit murder and one count of willful poisoning. Her bail is set at $1.6 million.
Jen Chhun, the defendant's 22-year-old sister, said she doesn't believe Phin would have harmed her baby. She said Phin was troubled, showing signs of mental health problems.
"She would sometimes say these things out of anger, but I don't think she would've done them," Chhun said while waiting in the courthouse hallway. "The baby was healthy, never harmed. She's not a murderer."
The infant, Anna, is healthy and safe, Phin's family said. They said the baby is in the custody of Child Protective Services.
Phin was arrested Wednesday after police say she told a fellow Modesto High School student Tuesday that she wanted to kill her baby by throwing it into a trash can, according to Modesto police.
The defendant's family insisted they did not call police.
Investigators went to Phin's house, where they were told that Phin also swung her purse at the infant and tried to persuade her sister to kill the child by feeding it rat poison, police said.
A few weeks ago, Chhun said she and her father spotted a bluelike substance floating in a bottle of formula. They didn't know what it was and threw out the formula. They didn't know how the substance got into the formula and used a different bottle to feed the baby. Chhun said she and her father had been examining the bottles before the baby was fed because they were worried about Phin's behavior.
As Phin's parents and her two sisters waited nervously in the courthouse hallway Friday, they spoke about the young woman's troubled background. She was dating a young man, the baby's presumed father, but the family never met him and doesn't know his name. The couple apparently broke up last year.
Like many teenage girls, Chhun said her sister dealt with relationship problems and high school drama. Sometime before her pregnancy, however, Chhun said she believes her sister started battling depression.
After the baby was born, Chhun said her sister never displayed affection for her newborn daughter. Phin's friends would come over and admire the baby, but then they would go out and leave the baby behind.
Phin's family would spend their time caring for the baby. Chhun described what it was like to hold her infant niece in her arms. "We miss her," Chhun said of the child. "I miss her smile."
The family is scheduled to appear in court Monday to discuss who will have custody of the child while her mother's case proceeds.
Momlinda Chhun, Phin's mother, said they hope the baby will be returned to their home and that Phin will be cleared of the criminal charges.
"She never did anything to harm the baby," Phin's mother said. "She just has mental problems."
Along with entering the not guilty plea, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Valli Israels denied enhancements added to the attempted murder charge on behalf of the defendant. Those enhancements, which allege Phin acted with premeditation and inflicted great bodily injury on the child, can lengthen a prison sentence if convicted.
Instead of appearing in the courtroom, Phin sat in a room at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center wearing dark-blue jail inmate clothes. She did not appear with a defense attorney.
Shackles on Phin's wrists were visible on the TV monitor as she held in her hands a copy of the criminal complaint.
At the other end of the live televised hearing, Israels asked the defendant whether she understood the charges. Phin said yes. The judge then appointed a public defender to represent Phin and scheduled her to return to court Thursday for a pretrial hearing.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.