Seven years ago, a child’s death broke up two Mexican families and their American dream
Medill Justice Project investigation of shaken-baby syndrome case uncovers child injury not disclosed at trial and reveals overlooked medical condition
By Jessica Floum, Jessie Geoffray and Susie Neilson
The Medill Justice Project
AURORA, Colo.—It’s about 9 p.m. on a cool Saturday night in August of 2008, and 24-year-old Claudia Jimenez-Cedillo is sitting alone in a windowless room in Aurora’s Municipal Justice Center in Arapahoe County, just miles outside Denver. She reaches for a tissue. In five minutes the detective will be back to ask her the same questions—questions that will be repeated over the next four-plus hours. She sits unusually still in the corner of the tiny room, waiting. The harsh fluorescent lights highlight the bags beneath her eyes. Her owlish features betray nothing.
She takes a deep breath, grips the tissue in her hands and steadies herself. Claudia has repeatedly told the detective from Aurora Police Department’s Crimes Against Children unit—through a translator—that she isn’t sure how her 15-month-old niece, Daniela, cracked her skull. After a few minutes, she slumps toward the table and rests her chin on her fist. Through the grainy interrogation footage, it appears as if she starts to cry.
Soon, two women stride into the room. Detective Amber Urban, a gun strapped to her petite frame, settles into a chair across the table. Claudia looks intently at Diana Brown, the translator, who repeats the detective’s questions and Claudia’s answers in a rapid mixture of English and Spanish. Unfamiliar with the American justice system, Claudia struggles to piece together the situation as hours pass.
The detective moves closer to Claudia and leans into her until their bodies touch. She holds Claudia’s arm as she asks questions. What do you want? she asks the detective. You’re right on top of me, putting pressure on me. The detective tells Claudia her niece may die. She presses her to tell her the truth about what happened but Claudia tells the detective she doesn’t know what more she can say. She knows Daniela is critically ill but Claudia still doesn’t understand why she’s been detained for so long. Eduardo Jr., her 17-month-old son, is with another police officer, and investigators are questioning her husband in a nearby room. She wants to visit her niece in the hospital. Instead she’s answering the same questions, again and again, with the same response: I don’t know.
This story is based on a Medill Justice Project investigation in collaboration with Denver magazine . Three undergraduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications spent 10 weeks probing this shaken-baby syndrome case, knocking on doors in the Denver area, pulling court records and obtaining police and other public documents, to find out what happened.
After a Medill Justice Project investigation, more is known that complicates the story: Daniela fell from a set of stairs about two weeks before she became unresponsive under Claudia’s care Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008—a fact that wasn’t raised at trial but divulged by the child’s mother in an interview for this story. And the child had potential symptoms of rickets, a disease that leads to soft, breakable bones, which received little attention in the aftermath of the tragedy—including at trial—according to records. The disorder may have explained how an alleged short fall from a bed could have caused Daniela’s severe skull fracture.
No physical evidence tied Claudia to the crime, according to police and court records. But in Arapahoe County—called “Arapahell” by some defense attorneys, in part for its aggressive prosecutors—authorities maintained that Claudia was the only adult in her home when Daniela started breathing erratically on Aug. 16, and the coroner concluded her symptoms of severe head trauma would have been immediate.
At 1 a.m. on the same gray, rainy Saturday in August 2008, Juanita Picazo and her husband Daniel awoke to the sound of their daughter vomiting. They assumed it was a symptom of teething—Daniela’s molars were beginning to show—so they weren’t overly worried when she got sick that night, or when she vomited again later in the morning.
That day, they lay with their daughter atop a makeshift nest of blankets and sofa cushions strewn on their living room floor. The family watched television and napped together until Daniel, 19, and Juanita, 18, left for their afternoon shifts, he at Chili’s, she at Senor Ric’s, a nearby Mexican restaurant in Aurora, just off I-225. Juanita wrapped Daniela in a Mickey Mouse blanket, carried her across the apartment complex with her diaper bag and left her daughter with Claudia, Juanita’s sister-in-law.
Claudia later told detectives she put Daniela and her son, Eduardo Jr., on her bed, where the children watched television. Claudia left the room to wash dishes. About an hour later, Claudia said she heard a thump and rushed in from the kitchen. Daniela was lying face down on the carpeted floor; her small body was convulsing. “Su cuerpo empese a saltarse,” Claudia would later write in her police statement. Her body started jumping.
As Daniela struggled to breathe, Claudia picked up her niece, placed her on the bed and began administering CPR, which she had learned years earlier in Mexico after a coworker choked to death because no one knew how to help. Claudia called Juanita several times but she didn’t answer. Claudia finally reached Daniel, described Daniela’s symptoms and said she was going to take the child to the hospital. After she hung up, the phone rang. It was Juanita. Claudia told her sister-in-law it was like Daniela was almost gone.
Juanita instructed Claudia to call 911 and then ran to tell her boss, Jeff Eaton, what had happened. He drove her to the apartment complex, and Juanita ran from the car just before the paramedics arrived. When Jeff got to Claudia’s doorway, he saw Juanita, sobbing. Her daughter lay draped across Claudia’s lap, her arm dangling, limp.
A cluster of robins-egg blue buildings sits directly off South Chambers Road in Aurora. Seven years ago, Claudia and Juanita’s families lived within steps of each other; their apartments were one floor apart.
These two families grew up in a small, dusty town in Jalisco, Mexico, a central western region of the country that was the home of a martyred priest, Toribio Romo, dubbed the patron saint of immigrants. Some locals believe his ghost has appeared to undocumented immigrants crossing the border to assist them in distress and bring them food, water and money.
About a decade ago, a teenage Juanita met her husband Daniel during the town’s annual Christmas festival. At the celebration, children, dressed as angels atop fluffy blue-and-white floats, wave to spectators while brown-shirted brass band members march behind; women ride horses down the street in red and white dresses. After sunset, vendors hawk warm garbanzo beans as town folk play games at the festival’s carnival. That evening, Juanita honored tradition by dancing in a circle of women around a fountain, while Daniel faced her in an outer circle of men. Juanita and Daniel didn’t dance together that night but after connecting through Juanita’s cousin, they soon began dating.
Claudia was raised in the same town; Daniel said he knew her all his life. She met her husband Eduardo, Juanita’s brother, when he visited their hometown in 2002. On his second date with Claudia, he brought her chocolates. They became “novios,” he said with a shy smile in an interview for this story. Lovers.
Soon after, Eduardo said he used a “coyote,” a human smuggler, to help him and Claudia slip over the border near Calexico, about 120 miles east of San Diego. They moved to the Denver area in 2005, and in February 2007, Claudia gave birth to Eduardo Jr. While Eduardo Sr. worked long hours at the nearby Chili’s on Parker Road, Claudia stayed at home. Eduardo remembered the days he would come home from work and hear Claudia speaking lovingly to “Junior” over the din of his shower. “Todo era ‘good.’ Todo era bonita,” Eduardo recalled, mixing English and Spanish. Everything was good. Everything was beautiful.
At about the same time, Juanita and Daniel moved from Mexico to Stockton, California, and welcomed their daughter, Daniela, on May 18, 2007. Juanita was just four days shy of 17, and Daniel was 18. They later moved to Colorado and rented an apartment in Claudia’s complex. Juanita began relying on Claudia in March 2008 to help take care of 10-month-old Daniela.
They sought “el sueño Americano,” Juanita said. The American dream.
By the time Aurora Police Department’s crime scene investigator Danae Jackson arrived at the Children’s Memorial Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit late Sunday night, Daniela was lying face up and hooked to a ventilator for life support. Her left temple was scratched and her right knee had a scab on it. A bruise bloomed on her forehead. She had undergone a craniectomy to relieve the pressure inside her skull, and blood dried at her hairline where metal staples extended to the back of her head. The investigator took a few dozen photographs and headed back out into the cool, cloudy night.
On Tuesday afternoon, doctors declared Daniela dead.
The next day at the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office, when the technician made the first incision during the child’s autopsy, so much red and black fluid poured from Daniela’s head that another technician had to use her hands to keep the liquid from spilling from the table. Dr. Michael J. Dobersen, who held the Arapahoe County coroner position for more than two decades before retiring last year, told everyone in the room he had never seen a brain in worse condition.
He concluded the brain injuries were caused by a blunt force impact to the head but he couldn’t determine exactly how that force was applied. “It could be a direct blow,” said the coroner in an interview for this story. “It could be a slam against a hard surface, you know. It could be a fall. It could be someone being thrown down. All possibilities are there.”
Because Daniela’s skull fracture was so severe and her bleeding so extreme, the coroner believed any resulting symptoms would have emerged immediately after the trauma and would have been more serious than vomiting or lethargy—symptoms of potential neurological damage Daniela exhibited days before she was admitted to the hospital. She would have become unconscious or developed seizure-like activity, he said. He also concluded Claudia’s account claiming Daniela had only fallen 26 inches from her bed to a carpeted floor did not explain the extent of her injuries. On Oct. 30, 2008, he ruled Daniela’s death a homicide.
Shaken-baby syndrome affects 1,200 to 1,400 children in the United States every year and is the leading cause of death in abusive head trauma cases, according to an estimate by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, a Utah-based non-profit organization whose stated aim is to prevent shaken-baby syndrome. The diagnosis is based on the presence of three symptoms: subdural hematoma, or the pooling of blood between the skull and brain; retinal hemorrhaging, or bleeding into the eye tissue; and cerebral edema, or brain swelling. Daniela had all three.
Medical experts said it is often difficult to pinpoint when injuries like these happen simply by looking at symptoms, and it is impossible to determine the exact time a subdural hematoma occurred by examining CT scans. During Claudia’s trial, Dr. Laura Fenton, a pediatric radiologist who examined Daniela’s CT scans on the day she was admitted to the hospital, said the bleeding in the child’s brain occurred sometime within seven days, from the day she lost consciousness up to seven days prior.
Juanita said Daniela hit her head at least twice in the two weeks leading up to the day she lost consciousness—once after Claudia fell down a flight of stairs while holding Daniela and they both hit their heads. This fall was never mentioned at trial. The second fall occurred when Daniela ran into a metal railing outside a laundry room near her home and struck her forehead. Juanita and Daniel initially told doctors and police Daniela hit her head at the laundry room two days before she lost consciousness. During the trial, they said it had happened five days prior, though Juanita said she wasn’t sure when pressed about the exact day. “Well, just a weekday,” she said.
The timing issue has complicated legal cases before. In 1996, Audrey Edmunds, a Wisconsin babysitter of 7-month-old Natalie Beard, was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide after the child became unresponsive while in her care. The child displayed similar injuries to Daniela. Like Daniela, Natalie had been lethargic and irritable; she also vomited in the days leading up to her hospitalization. Keith Findley, the defendant’s attorney and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said Audrey was convicted partly on the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Robert W. Huntington III, who said the infant had most likely been injured within two hours before her collapse.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project took on Edmunds’ case after her attorney discovered a letter the forensic pathologist wrote to The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. In 1999, another child, with similar symptoms as Natalie and Daniela, collapsed and died at a hospital after remaining conscious from the morning she was brought in until hours later, at about 2 a.m. On the day she was admitted, a doctor noted she was “fussy and clingy, but interactive and responsive,” the forensic pathologist’s letter stated. The next evening, the child was declared brain dead. The forensic pathologist found brain swelling, subdural hemorrhages and retinal hemorrhages during the autopsy, and the case made him question his testimony in Audrey’s case. According to the forensic pathologist’s letter, the child could have experienced what is known as a lucid interval, a period of awareness between sustaining her injury and manifesting symptoms.
In 2008, after an appeals court ruled new research into shaken-baby syndrome cast doubt on her guilty verdict, Audrey was released from prison. Her attorney said doctors and prosecutors often use flawed reasoning in assessing potential abusive head trauma, such as ruling out possibilities because they are medically unlikely, a method of reasoning known as the “rarity argument.” This approach is erroneous, he said, because it considers cases en masse. “You have to deal with the case lying before you,” he said in an interview for this story. “Is it abuse, or is it one of those rare cases? And the task is to figure out whether it’s one of those rare cases.”
Dr. John Galaznik, an Alabama physician and medical consultant on criminal cases involving allegations of physical abuse of children, put it this way: “As the old adage goes, ‘it only takes one exception to prove an absolute wrong,’” he said in an interview for this article. “But we have a lot of exceptions.”
Two days after Daniela’s autopsy, her parents confronted the coroner in his office during a meeting they had requested. According to police records, they did not understand what caused Daniela’s injuries. During the meeting, they posed a variety of scenarios: Could Junior have caused Daniela’s head injuries unintentionally? Could Daniela have caused the head injuries herself? Could a recent fall at their apartment complex laundry room or the fall from Claudia’s bed be the cause?
The coroner reiterated his conclusion Daniela had died from blunt force trauma to the head. But according to a report from Marvin “Joe” Young, one of two sergeants in charge of the Crimes Against Children Unit, the family wanted to know if the head injuries might be the doctors’ fault. They wondered if Daniela and Junior could have been playing tug of war when she lost her grip and fell into a wall or if she hit her head on a railing or a drawer when she fell off the bed. “Lastly, they said that the police make lots of mistakes and maybe we (asking of me) were making a mistake,” stated the report by the sergeant, who, along with the detective, did not respond to several requests for an interview. “They said that no matter what they didn’t want anybody to go to jail for this.”
Two weeks after Daniela’s death, on September 2, 2008, Aurora police arrested Claudia on charges of child abuse resulting in death. As police read her the charges through an interpreter, Claudia remained expressionless, except for a single, deep swallow.
Claudia sought legal counsel from Denver’s Mexican Consulate, which pays Spanish-speaking attorneys to provide hourly legal counsel to Mexican citizens. She spoke with Lisabeth Pérez Castle, a former public defender in Adams County and Denver, who said Claudia’s case was one of the most complicated she had encountered.
“Generally these cases are extremely difficult,” the attorney said in an interview for this story. “There is a lot of bias in the community going into it because the life of a child is involved. When you add to that someone who doesn’t speak the language, it is further compounded.”
After meeting with the Mexican Consulate, Claudia and Eduardo briefly hired Antonio Lucero, a Spanish-speaking defense attorney, who did not respond to several requests for comment.
In 2009, Claudia’s family hired Steven Franger, who was working for America’s Criminal Defense Group, a Southern California law firm that contracts lawyers for out-of-state cases. To pay the $40,000 in legal fees, Claudia’s mother sold part of her family’s land in Mexico and other family members pitched in, according to Claudia’s sister. Claudia’s attorney said it was his first murder case.
While the prosecution called six doctors to the stand, the defense called one expert medical witness. Claudia’s attorney said finding expert medical witnesses depends on availability and cost. “You’re talking about experts costing multiple and multiple of thousands of dollars,” he said in an interview for this article.
The defense’s one expert medical witness, forensic pathologist Dr. Shaku Teas, argued there was reasonable doubt about whether Claudia had caused Daniela’s injuries. During her testimony, the forensic pathologist said she had consulted with Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University Medical Center, and suggested alternative explanations.
Daniela’s CT scans showed “irregularity at multiple anterior rib ends,” according to a Children’s Memorial Hospital report. It said this irregularity stemmed from nutritional deficiency or rib fractures in the costochondral junction, the joints between the ribs and cartilage in the front of the rib cage. Dr. Robert P. Heaney, a specialist in bone health and vitamin D deficiency at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, said in an interview for this story that Daniela’s rib irregularities could have indicated she suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency common among children with nutritional imbalances that leaves the bones soft and breakable. If rickets had indeed softened Daniela’s bones, “they would probably be more prone to fracture,” the bone specialist said. If Daniela had the condition, he added, “It’s entirely possible [her skull fracture] could have occurred from a fall from the bed.”
When Claudia’s expert medical witness referenced at trial the hospital report and Daniela’s rib irregularities, Jay Williford, the prosecuting attorney, maintained there was no mention of rickets in any of Daniela’s medical records. Claudia’s attorney challenged the prosecutor’s claim and said he believed it was in the report.
“Judge, I can tell you it’s not in there,” the prosecutor asserted.
Judge John L. Wheeler gave the attorneys a choice: He could review Daniela’s medical records for evidence of rickets, or they could move on.
“I’ll leave that [decision] to the defense,” the prosecutor said.
“Let’s move on,” the judge said.
Through a spokesperson, the prosecutor declined to comment for this story.
The trial lasted six days, and the jury read its verdict on a Friday: guilty of child abuse resulting in death.
Sentenced to 24 years in prison, Claudia lamented in Spanish being separated from her child, her then 3-year-old son Junior: “It breaks my soul.”
Claudia, now 31, is incarcerated at La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado. She declined to be interviewed for this article without giving a reason but since the day she was accused, Claudia has maintained her innocence. “I’m not sure that she didn’t do it,” said Juanita, Daniela’s mother, through a translator in an interview for this story. “My heart wants to believe she didn’t.”
After her appeals were denied, Claudia hired attorney Mark Burton who said he has begun reviewing her file and plans to file a petition challenging her conviction. For now, her U.S. documentation is her department of corrections record.