Preliminary hearing is scheduled for Merced couple in suspected abuse of 4-year-old in coma

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comAugust 3, 2013 

— A judge on Monday set a Sept. 9 preliminary hearing date in the case of a Merced couple accused of beating a 4-year-old boy, resulting in a coma.

Harlon Caldwell, 29, and Olevea Carter, 21, are each charged with a count of felony assault on a child likely to result in great bodily injury or death. The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The boy, who is listed as a confidential victim in court documents, is Carter's biological son. Caldwell is Carter's live-in boyfriend. According to attorneys, the boy remains in a coma at a regional hospital.

During the Sept. 9 hearing, a judge will determine whether there's enough evidence to put the defendants on trial.

Deputy District Attorney Allen Grove said both defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, if convicted. The prosecution believes Caldwell was the boy's primary abuser, and that Carter was present.

Grove said his office is treating the allegations seriously, particularly because the victim is so young.

"It's important we protect the children of our community, and we will prosecute to the best of our ability," he said.

Caldwell is being represented by Deputy Public Defender Kim Boortz. Boortz declined comment, saying the case is in its early stages.

Contra Costa County-based attorneys Michael Pierson and Patanisha Davis-Jenkins, who've been hired to represent Carter, said there's doubt as to whether their client was present when Caldwell is suspected of having abused the boy.

Davis-Jenkins and Pierson said they believe the charge their client faces is too harsh, saying she's been "overcharged."

"It's her contention she would never harm her son," Pierson said.

Grove said he disagrees with the defense's assessment of the case. "I think the facts back up what's being charged," he said.

Davis-Jenkins said she believes Merced County prosecutors are trying to make an example out of Carter.

"She is a very strong mother who loves her children," Davis-Jenkins said.

Claimed boy had seizure

The case began after Merced police on June 2 were dispatched to Mercy Medical Center Merced after staff there reported a possible incident of child abuse, according to the police report.

The child had apparently been brought to the hospital by Carter, who said the boy had a seizure. Doctors examined the child and discovered he was suffering from severe brain swelling.

The boy also apparently had numerous fresh bruises on his body, including his chest, arms, back, buttocks and legs, according to the report.

After police arrived at the hospital, Carter claimed her son had wet the bed during the day and had been made to "run laps" as punishment about 8 a.m.

After coming home and eating breakfast, the child later went to sleep at 10 to 11 a.m.

She told police the boy started having a seizure about 5:40 p.m., and that she then took him to the hospital.

Carter maintained that the marks on the boy's body had come from a rock fight at the lake with other children, according to the police report.

Carter said no one had been around the child during the previous 24 hours, except her and Caldwell.

Carter also said an injury on the back of the child's head occurred when he fell trying to get into a car "several weeks" before he was taken to the hospital in June.

Caldwell, during questioning by detectives, said he and Carter had been together for about a year, and he'd recently moved to the area from Las Vegas. He said he had spanked the child and made him run laps because he urinated in the bed.

He also told detectives that when the child passed him while running laps, he'd strike the boy on his buttocks until he fell.

Detective Chris Russell, who interviewed Caldwell, told the defendant there had to be more to the story because of the severity of the victim's injuries.

"I told him that spanking him and making him run around did not cause him to be in the condition that he was in, something else happened," Russell said in the report.

Caldwell also admitted to the detective that he'd previously punched the child if he "messed up," striking him in the chest to make him fall. Caldwell said Carter was present when the abuse of the boy took place, according to the police report.

Caseworker visited

According to the police report, a Merced County Child Protection Services caseworker visited the defendants' home May 29 amid allegations of abuse — three days before the child was admitted to the hospital with severe brain trauma.

The caseworker reported that Carter was reluctant to allow him into her home to meet Caldwell. The caseworker said he did not notice any bruising on Carter's two children, with the exception of a bump on the boy's head, according to the police report.

The caseworker noted, however, that when he asked the children whether they liked their "mom's new boyfriend," they replied that they did not.

Both defendants are being held at the Merced County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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