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May 13, 2014

Jury convicts Modesto baby sitter of lesser charge in toddler’s death

A jury on Tuesday decided that Modesto baby sitter Maria Elena Torres is guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 18-month-old Alexandra Medina-Cisneros.

A jury on Tuesday decided that a Modesto baby sitter is guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of an 18-month-old girl.

Authorities say Maria Elena Torres beat to death Alexandra Medina-Cisneros by punching the toddler’s stomach. The defendant told investigators the child fell down a flight of stairs outside her west Modesto apartment.

A child-abuse expert testified that Alexandra’s injuries, which included the tearing in half of her pancreas and left kidney, could not have been caused by a fall. A biomechanical engineer testified that he determined the child’s injuries could have been caused by a fall down concrete stairs.

Had Torres been convicted of second-degree murder, she would have faced a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Instead, Torres was convicted of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. The prosecutor said the defendant faces up to four years in prison in the girl’s death.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen scheduled Torres to return to court June 5 for her sentencing hearing. The defendant has been in custody since Feb. 8, 2012.

Torres will get credit for the two years and nearly four months she will have served at the Stanislaus County Jail. And she likely will get credit for good behavior while in custody. The county Probation Department will calculate how much credited time Torres will receive and recommend her for probation supervision after she is released from custody. Steffen will determine Torres’ sentence and probation.

After the verdict was announced, Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering said he was gratified with the outcome of the trial. He said the verdict shows the jury believed the case was the result of negligence, not an assault on a child. “It’s a very difficult case,” Spiering said in the courthouse hallway about the emotional trial. “I feel very sorry for the family of Alexandra, and Ms. Torres’ family.”

Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees said it was clear the injuries Alexandra suffered could not have been caused by a fall down a staircase. She said about the jurors’ verdict: “I’m very disappointed, but I have to honor their decision. I just feel badly for Alexandra’s mom.”

The incident occurred Feb. 7, 2012, at El Casa Verde apartments at Robertson Road and Sutter Avenue. Torres and Alexandra’s mother, Maria Guadalupe Cisneros, were old friends, and Torres watched the child while Cisneros was at work.

Cisneros has been in the courtroom for most of the trial, but she was not present for the verdict. Rees said the child’s mother was about 15 minutes away from the courthouse when the judge read the verdict.

The prosecutor said Cisneros was disappointed by the jury’s decision and felt she was better off not being there when the verdict was announced. Cisneros does not plan on being in the courtroom when Torres is sentenced.

The defendant’s family also was not in the courtroom when the jury’s decision was announced. Torres cried a bit in the courtroom when she heard the verdict. Her attorney said, “She seemed overwhelmed.”

The jury of eight women and four men began deliberating about 2:30 p.m. Thursday. The jurors continued deliberating Friday morning and all day Monday without reaching a verdict. They resumed deliberations Tuesday morning. About 1:40 p.m., the jurors informed the judge that they had a verdict on the homicide charge but didn’t know how to proceed on the charge of assault on a child causing death. They were told the child assault charge was only an alternative for the jurors if they acquitted Torres of homicide.

After the verdict was read in court, one of the jurors walked over to the prosecutor and patted Rees on her back. Rees said the juror told her that she believed everything the prosecutor had said in court, but the juror was not able to convince the rest of the jury.

Spiering said he felt that testimony from biomechanical engineer John Gardiner played a key role in the jury’s decision. The defense attorney also said a pathologist testified that it’s possible a fall down the stairs could have happened in this case. “I think the evidence was honest and consistent, and (the jury) came to understand it correctly,” Spiering said.

Forensic pathologist Sung-Ook Baik, who conducted the autopsy on Alexandra, testified that the child died from blunt force trauma. Dr. James Crawford-Jakubiak, the medical director at the Center for Child Protection at Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, testified that the girl had no skull fractures and no cuts, which would have occurred had there been a fall down concrete stairs with iron railings.

After the verdict, the prosecutor said she found it hard to comprehend that the jury couldn’t tell the difference between a medical doctor and a biomechanical engineer. Rees had argued in the trial that Torres was known to have a temper and was comfortable using violence on her children. She believes Torres punched Alexandra in the stomach.

Sarun Un testified that he saw the child at the bottom of the stairs. The jury reviewed his testimony during deliberations.

Un’s credibility was challenged in court because he said he ran from the apartment complex and didn’t speak to police. Un told a TV news reporter two days after the incident that he had seen the child fall down the stairs, which contradicted part of his testimony.

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