The Edmond Sun

January 30, 2013

Jury hears from mother in toddler homicide trial

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

OKLAHOMA CITY — Prosecution witnesses tightened the window of opportunity for when the injuries that caused the death of Jolen Babakhani, 2, could have occurred.

Defense attorneys attempted to poke holes in witnesses’ credibility and raise doubt in the minds of the eight-woman, four-man jury.

It was day two of the state’s prosecution of Rico Antwoine Berry, 28, who is charged with first-degree murder and child neglect in Jolen’s death. He is presumed innocent. If he is found guilty on the murder charge, he would face a sentence of life or life without parole.

It was also a day highlighted by several intense moments in the courtroom of Oklahoma County District Judge Glenn Jones.

Jurors heard Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger question the victim’s grandmother, Peggy Babakhani, who baby-sat Jolen from Friday, Oct. 9, 2009 through Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009.

Gieger showed her a series of photographs showing Jolen’s injuries, bruising around the front of his neck and other injuries to his head, each time asking her if she saw any of them when his mother picked him up at about 6 p.m. that Sunday. Each time she said, “No.”

“He was my little ‘boo boo bear,’” she affectionately said of Jolen at one point during questioning.



JOLEN’S MOM TESTIFIES

The state’s first witness of the day was Sara Babakhani, Jolen’s mother. She said on Oct. 12, a Monday, he wasn’t feeling good but otherwise appeared to be normal. When she got home that afternoon, he was sleeping.

“He was just himself,” she said.

When Carlson asked her if she noticed any bleeding or any bruises on her son, she said no, that she did not see it happen. On Oct. 11, a Sunday, Jolen was walking in the apartment when he tripped on an object and fell, landing on the floor, Babakhani said. She said she did not see any visible injuries. The night of Oct. 12, she said she saw an abrasion on Jolen.

During the morning of Oct. 13, a Tuesday, Jolen wasn’t feeling well so she left him at home with Berry instead of taking him to daycare at Langston University where she was studying to be a registered nurse.

At about 8:30 a.m. she left her second story unit at the Rolling Green apartment complex, 400 E. Danforth Rd. Berry was standing at the window holding Jolen who was waving at her.

During the day, Babakhani had several classes at Langston, one in the morning, two in the afternoon. Throughout the day she was in touch with Berry either talking or texting via her cell phone. About mid-morning, she received a video of Jolen sleeping on the couch, oddly twitching his legs. The jury saw the seconds-long video.

In between classes, Babakhani spoke to Jolen on the phone. She broke down as she testified about the last time she would hear his voice. Even at his age, a couple of months shy of his third birthday, he was able to say quite a few words, she said.

“We were just saying, ‘I love you’ and stuff like that,” she said.

All seemed to be OK with Jolen, she said.  

“He said, ‘I love you too, mom.’ We were just going back and forth saying, ‘I love you.’”

Sometime before 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 13, Babakhani was taking a nap and Berry called to wake her for her 1:30 p.m. class. After a meeting with her professor, she began the roughly 30-minute drive home at about 5 p.m. She was talking to Berry along the way. At one point, he urged her to hurry and said, “I just want to hold you,” Babakhani said.

As she neared the apartment complex, Berry called her and said hurry, that Jolen’s lips were turning blue. After Babakhani arrived at the complex, during the frantic ensuing moments, Berry scooped up Jolen and they headed for their car. Babakhani said she saw a couple of police officers and frantically yelled, “He’s not breathing! He’s not breathing!”

Fourteen-year veteran Edmond Police Officer Greg Jaggi testified that he was at the apartment complex looking for a vandalism suspect. Several other officers were also there.

Jaggi said he heard fellow Officer Marion Cain on the radio saying he was with a small child who was not breathing.

The jury watched and heard the ensuing action via a dashcam video recording from Jaggi’s patrol car. When Jaggi, who was seconds away, arrived at the scene, Cain was doing chest compressions. In the background Babakhani could be heard sobbing. As they worked on Jolen, Cain and Jaggi said, “Come on baby, come on. Come on baby, come on.”

Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Susanne Carlson, Jaggi said as he cleared Jolen’s airway, he noticed blood in his mouth. He said he did not see Jolen breathing. He noticed the injuries that were visible in the hospital images as he was shown each one.

“It looked like the child had been beaten or choked,” Jaggi said.



MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS

Jaggi said he drove Babakhani to The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. One of the doctors attending to him was Adam Carver, an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is a specialist in medical and surgical eye problems.

Carver examined Jolen in the pediatric intensive care unit. Carver said he found evidence in both eyes of retinal hemorrhage, which is abnormal bleeding of blood vessels in the retina, the membrane in the back of the eye.

Carver said the evidence was consistent with non-accidental trauma. In court records, Berry allegedly admitted to picking Jolen up by the neck with his right hand and then “body slamming” the toddler three times on the couch.

Defense attorney James Hughes asked Carver about the causes of retinal hemorrhage, and potential causes include high blood pressure, child birth, diabetes and hypertension. When asked about how many like cases he’d had, Carver said five to 10. When asked if he had ever erred in a diagnosis of retinal hemorrhage, he said not to his recollection. Carver also acknowledged that this was an area of medical science where knowledge was incomplete.

Testimony is expected to continue on Thursday.



marks@edmondsun.com | 341-2121, ext. 108