Trial ordered in death of child at west Modesto apartment

Baby-sitter facing charge of murder

rahumada@modbee.comMay 22, 2013 

Maria Elena Torres

Maria Elena Torres, MPD murder suspect

UNKNOWN — Unknown

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    Rosalio Ahumada
    Title: Courts reporter
    Coverage areas: Criminal cases, breaking news
    Bio: Rosalio Ahumada has been a reporter at The Bee for more than seven years, previously covering crime and public safety issues. He also has worked at the Merced Sun-Star, covering education.
    Recent stories written by Rosalio
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    E-mail: rahumada@modbee.com

— A judge Wednesday determined there was enough evidence for a woman to stand trial accused of murder in the death of an 18-month-old girl she was baby sitting at her west Modesto home last year.

In the death of Alexandra Medina-Cisneros, 32-year-old Maria Elena Torres faces a charge of murder and assault on a child younger than 8 years old.

The defendant has told investigators the child accidentally fell down the stairs from her second-floor apartment. Authorities have said the child's injuries indicate Alexandra died at Torres' hands.

Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering told the judge that the prosecution did not present any evidence that points to a motive. He said there was nothing to indicate Torres would "suddenly take it upon herself to beat this child."

Torres had been baby sitting the child for several months. She and Maria Guadalupe Cisneros, the child's mother, had known each other well for about eight years. Both of them lived at El Casa Verde apartments before Cisneros and her two children moved into a house with a relative a few blocks away.

Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees argued that Alexandra can't tell them what happened to her, so they have to look at her injuries to determine how she died.

Stanislaus County forensic pathologist Sungook Baik testified in the preliminary hearing that the child died from blunt force injuries on her abdomen and her back. He also said he found tearing on the child's liver, pancreas and left kidney. "Those were not injuries caused by falling down a staircase 9 feet from the ground," Rees told the judge.

Baik also testified he didn't find skull fractures or cuts on the child's skin, which would have been indications that Alexandra fell.

Autopsy reviewed

Dr. James Crawford Jakubiak, medical director at the Center for Child Protection at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, reviewed the child's autopsy report and medical records.

Jakubiak agreed that Alexandra's injuries were not caused by a fall down the stairs. The child abuse expert said her death was the result of a severe beating.

Spiering argued that neighbors said Torres was not particularly attentive, even with her own children. One neighbor testified that she heard Torres' son screaming as he fell down the stairs once, and Torres came out of her apartment frantic to pick up the injured child.

The neighbor, however, testified that she did not hear screaming or see commotion with Torres and any children on the day Alexandra died. The neighbor lives on the first floor, and her window facing the bottom of the stairs was open that day.

The defense attorney also argued that testimony from Sarun Un can't be ignored. He said in court he saw the child at the bottom of the stairs after she fell. He testified that he didn't see her fall.

The prosecutor called Un a totally unreliable witness, because he says he ran from the apartment complex and never told police his story. The following day, Un told a TV news reporter that he saw the child fall down the stairs, which contradicts his testimony, Rees argued.

Un testified that he was paranoid and ran home after he saw the baby hit the ground because he was wanted on an arrest warrant. He didn't clear up the warrant until the day he gave his account on the witness stand.

Rees also argued that Torres told authorities that she spent an hour after the child's fall trying to revive her by splashing alcohol and cold water on her face. Torres also changed the girl's diaper and her clothes before she walked to the child's nearby home and asked the relative there to call for help.

The prosecutor emphasized Torres didn't pound on the door of any of her neighbors at the apartment complex, and she didn't use a phone inside her house to call 911. She said Torres' actions were "not consistent with someone who is innocent."

Defense explains bruising

Spiering told the judge his client failed miserably in her attempts to revive the child with what she thought were lifesaving techniques. In doing that, she might have caused the bruising seen on the girl's abdomen.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen said in court that the two versions of what happened to Alexandra are hard to reconcile, partly because the child's mother never had any concerns about Torres' care.

On the other hand, the judge said the medical experts said the girl's injuries were not consistent with a fall and were so significant that they couldn't have been caused by negligence.

Steffen said his decision to order Torres to stand trial was based on the findings from the pathologist and the child abuse expert's opinion. He scheduled Torres, who remains in custody, to return to court June 5 for an arraignment hearing.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394.

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