Arrested development

Shaken baby syndrome conviction of Chico man raises questions about the justice system

REUNION Maria and Mehdi Belahbib visit Ryan at the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento last December.

REUNION Maria and Mehdi Belahbib visit Ryan at the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento last December.

Courtesy Of Soumaya Errafi

Last month, a judge sentenced 24-year-old Mehdi Belahbib to nine years in state prison after he was found guilty of shaking his infant son with such force as to cause permanent brain damage. Baby Ryan, now 17 months old, may be blinded for life, will probably never walk, must be fed through a tube in his stomach and may have the permanent mental capacity of a 3-month-old infant.

A jury found Belahbib guilty in February because he could not explain the cause of his baby’s illness after he and his wife rushed Ryan to the hospital a year and a half ago. Doctors discovered the baby’s brain was bleeding and he had hemorrhaging retinas. With a lack of other, more obvious injuries such as bruising, whiplash or broken ribs, the prosecutor relied on a much-debated medical theory popularly known as shaken baby syndrome to explain Ryan’s condition.

How could Belahbib exert enough force on his baby to inflict the internal injuries without also leaving obvious external injuries? That is the great mystery of shaken baby syndrome.

Led into the courtroom on the day of his sentencing, shackled and dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, Belahbib was joined by his attorney, Dennis Latimer, who placed an arm around his young client while Butte County Superior Court Judge Gerald Hermanson delivered Belahbib’s fate.

A small group of Belahbib’s supporters, including his wife and mother-in-law, sat in the back of the courtroom, as they had throughout Belahbib’s two-week trial.

Upon hearing the sentence, Belahbib began weeping quietly, his shoulders hunched. The burly Latimer, who earlier in the morning had admitted that he felt “horrible” about the pending sentencing, looked at his client, gave him a quick hug and stood up.

Outside the courtroom, Latimer tried to comfort Belahbib’s wife, Maria, the mother of the injured child. He told her the verdict was wrong, the sentence was wrong and an appeal would be filed.

“Sometimes justice is difficult to get,” Latimer said. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t get it.”

Maria is now trying to regain custody of her son, whom the state has placed in foster care. Friends say she’s been told that if she wants custody, she must cut all ties with and divorce her husband, which flies in the face of her Catholic upbringing.

Latimer later said this was one of the worst cases he’d ever tried in his 33 years as an attorney. It took something out of him; it felt, he said, like a sucker punch.

About the only thing for certain in this case is its distribution of extreme sadness. There is a young father who’s about to lose nine years of his life as a free man; a baby with permanent and serious health problems; and a young wife and mother who may well lose her husband and child. And there are two sets of grandparents who may never know their grandchild.

Friends and supporters of Mehdi Belahbib—pronounced MA-dee ba-LAH-beeb—contend he is a victim of a system and a society that need a scapegoat to blame when horrible things happen to the innocent. They say the baby’s problems that manifested when he was 7 weeks old may have been caused by an earlier undetected and accidental injury or at birth, when he was delivered by caesarean section with the use of forceps on his head.

A few weeks after the sentencing, Belahbib sat on the inmates’ side of the Plexiglas window in a visitor’s booth at the Butte County Jail. He was wearing a blue, jail-issue jumpsuit. His short-cropped hair was neatly combed. Belahbib has boyish good looks not unlike those of Sacramento Kings basketball player Peja Stojakovic.

On this day he was in the middle of receiving a series of visitors, many of the same people who sat through his trial. The visits have become a weekend routine.

Belahbib’s eyes were red and rimmed with tears. He apologized to the reporter on the other side of the partition. Though only three feet apart, they had to talk by phone.

How was he doing, all things considered?

“Not terribly great,” he said as he wiped his eyes and answered a question that was somehow both painfully obvious and utterly necessary.

“I’m really depressed, very sad every day that I wake up. Most of my days are like that. I’ve asked my family to send me books.

“My family is what’s most important to me,” he continued, gaining his composure. “I always wanted to be a daddy for a long time. We never got the chance.”

And finally, just as he has repeated many times in last year and a half, he said that no, he didn’t shake his baby.

Now he waits. Any day now he could be transferred to a state prison to start his long sentence, of which he must serve at least 80 percent.

Belahbib, a French native of Moroccan descent, has been living a nightmare since that fateful day in late 2001. According to court records, on Saturday, Dec. 8, at just about noon, 7-week-old Ryan Belahbib became sick at the family’s cozy 22nd Street home. A series of events would then conspire to bring the young father to his present state of gloom and depression here in the land of the free.

Belahbib first came to America to visit his older half-sister, Soumaya Errafi, who at the time was living in Los Angeles. A basketball player and Lakers fan, he learned quickly to fit into and enjoy the American way of life.

“He came to L.A. and fell in love with it,” Errafi recalled. “He was fluent in English already, and he was playing basketball. I was living in a really nice spot. And he met friends; the life of the international student is quite nice. He thought America was the greatest thing.”

Belahbib returned to France, and Errafi moved to Chico and began attending Butte College. Belahbib entered medical school in France but did not score well enough on a test after his first year to continue. Disappointed, he decided to join his sister in the States.

He arrived in 2000 and moved in with Errafi. After a short stint at Chico State, he enrolled at Butte College and got involved in media arts, where he met Maria, an aspiring opera singer who worked in the school’s Theater Department. Mehdi was also an accomplished cellist.

She says it was love at first sight. She became pregnant, and they were married on March 10, 2001. Ryan was born in October.

The birth was complicated. The baby was overdue, had not dropped properly and finally was delivered by caesarean section at Enloe Medical Center. The doctor had to use forceps on the baby’s head to help extract Ryan, who weighed a hefty 10 pounds. The umbilical cord, court records show, was wrapped twice around the baby’s neck.

The APGAR test scores, used to monitor the baby’s general health following the birth, were good. But APGAR tests only the circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems; it does not look for neurological injuries or retinal bleeding. Pediatrician Dr. Greg Corp testified at the trial that retinal tests are difficult and that he did not do one on Ryan. He also said that as many as half the neurological injuries present at birth can go undetected.

After 13 days, Ryan was taken in for a health check at Enloe’s Children Health Center. His height was average, but his weight and the circumference of his head were in the 95th percentile. At this point, neurological tests consist of seeing if the baby curls its toes around a finger, if it can suck and if it is startled when poked. Apparently, Ryan passed these tests.

Mehdi was promoted in his job with an insurance company but soon became disillusioned with the industry and quit to become a stay-at home dad, planning to re-enroll in school at the next semester. In the weeks before Dec. 8, Maria reported, the baby was having trouble sleeping and often throwing up. She said she changed the baby’s formula thinking that might have been the cause of Ryan’s discomfort.

On that December day, Belahbib said, he put the baby into a mechanical swing before going off to the kitchen to prepare a bottle of formula. When he returned, the baby had vomited and was crying. He cleared the vomit with a bulb syringe.

Beginning to panic, Belahbib called Maria, who was working her new job at Flair Cleaners in the Mangrove Shopping Center. Belahbib told her their son was sick, that he would pick her up on the way to the hospital.

When he arrived at Flair, Maria was waiting outside. She climbed into the back seat of the car to discover the baby was not breathing; his lips and extremities were turning blue. She gave the baby mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Mehdi rushed north on Mangrove to Enloe Medical Center.

They turned left on East First Avenue, and when they got to The Esplanade, they spotted a First Responder ambulance, which was transporting a non-emergency patient.

Mehdi flashed his headlights to signal and pull over the ambulance. Maria handed the baby to EMT Shawn McJunkin. This was at 12:38. Maria, who was described by McJunkin as distraught, jumped into the ambulance for the quick ride to the emergency room.

HAPPY DAY First-day father Mehdi Belahbib cradles his son soon after his delivery on Oct. 17, 2001. Looking on are Belahbib’s sister Soumaya Errafi and father Tayeb.

Courtesy Of Soumaya Errafi

At the hospital, McJunkin handed the baby to Dr. Diane Gill, an anesthesiologist, and spent the next 15 minutes with the parents in the “quiet room” in Enloe. Based on the information provided by the parents, McJunkin estimated the baby had gone 15 minutes without breathing.

Friends, who met the Belahbibs at the hospital, reported that Dr. Gill approached the parents and announced that someone had “shaken this baby today.”

Ryan, the parents were told, would be airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento for more-intensive treatment, but Mehdi would not be allowed to go along. At that moment Mehdi Belahbib became a suspect in his son’s injuries.

In Davis, Dr. Kevin Coulter, a pediatrician who has testified in a number of child abuse court cases, made it official—Ryan was a victim of shaken baby syndrome.

Coulter’s testimony in court as to the timeline he was given by Mehdi would later prove crucial in Mehdi’s guilty verdict. Coulter reported Mehdi told him the baby began showing signs of illness at 10:30 that morning. The fact that Mehdi apparently did nothing until noon led to charges—and a conviction—of negligence.

In fact, nearly half the jurors on the case, it would turn out, thought they were convicting Mehdi only for negligence rather than actually shaking the baby.

However, Mehdi’s friend Mark Bourgeois, one of the loyal supporters who attended the trial each day and did hours of research on the case, said Coulter was mistaken, that Mehdi had told Coulter he and Maria had gone to bed the night before the incident at about 10:30, not that the baby had become ill at 10:30 the next morning.

Mehdi and Maria, through Mehdi’s sister Errafi, contacted Latimer on Sunday, Dec. 9. He told them not to talk to the police without his presence. When a Chico police detective came by their house to interview them, they followed their attorney’s advice.

The detective, they said, told them that he could only assume there was some level of guilt if they were unwilling to talk to him.

Shaken baby syndrome, or SBS, is a described medical condition that prosecutors have used in increasing instances to incarcerate parents and caregivers of children whose head injuries are otherwise unexplainable.

On the day his parents rushed him to the hospital, Ryan’s brain was bleeding, as were the retinas of his eyes. Both are classic symptoms of SBS.

And Belahbib fit the profile of those most likely to cause SBS: a young man, usually the father or the mother’s boyfriend. He was the caregiver when his baby became ill. And he could not explain how the injury had occurred. That was all the prosecution needed.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey took the evidence to the Grand Jury to get an indictment, rather than filing the charges himself followed by a preliminary court hearing, as is more often done in criminal cases.

Ramsey took this route, he said, to get Maria to testify. In a Grand Jury hearing, there is no spousal privilege not to bear witness against a husband or wife.

“We went to the Grand Jury because at that point we had to get between the mother and father,” Ramsey said. “The mother was not willing to testify. In this case the mother had to testify. She had not wanted to anything say to the [investigating] officers.”

SBS was first described in 1972 by medical researcher John Caffey as an explanation for a collection of symptoms—bleeding and swelling of the brain as well as retinal hemorrhages.

The damage, SBS supporters say, is equivalent to that which would result from a baby’s fall from a multistory building or the impact sustained in a high-velocity auto accident. Those two examples are cited in a number of different publications and papers defending SBS.

Critics, however, say SBS is an anecdote-based theory and lacks empirical, scientific evidence. A Colorado appellate court has ruled that using the examples of a fall from a building or an auto accident to explain SBS leads to faulty logic.

The train of thought is: Some children who suffer brain bleeding have been subjected to the same force as a fall from a building or auto accident. This child has a subdural hematoma (bleeding brain); therefore this child suffered trauma equal to falling from a building or being in a high-impact auto accident.

It is like arguing, critics say, the following syllogism: Some dogs are brown; there is a brown cat; therefore the cat is a dog.

The Colorado court ruled that using the building-fall/auto-accident comparison was unfairly prejudicial, and a conviction was reversed.

How much shaking force is necessary to cause the same damage that would be caused by a long fall or automobile accident?

There is no defined answer. When asked under cross examination during the trial, Dr. Coulter, who’s given expert testimony in five child abuse cases, refused to speculate.

“I can’t quantify it for you,” he told Latimer. “It’s like pornography. You know it [when you see it].”

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome says simply, “It is clear that to lift an infant and shake requires an adult or an adult-sized person.”

Critics, including Dr. Ron Uscinski, an expert witness for the defense in Belahbib’s case, say experiments show that it is physically impossible for a human being to shake a baby with such force.

“These guys are never going to admit it, but they misunderstood the results of an experiment,” Uscinski said during a recent phone interview from Chicago. Uscinski is a neurosurgeon and pediatrician at Georgetown University.

The experiment he referred to was conducted in 1968 using rhesus monkeys strapped to fiberglass chairs mounted on a carriage that could be accelerated suddenly along a track to simulate a rear-end vehicle collision.

The experiment’s results, Uscinski said, indicated that such violent movement would not cause the brain injuries and that such force could not be duplicated by a person. This information was given to Caffey, but for some reason he did not include it in a paper he published four years later defining shaken baby syndrome.

Uscinski further said that subdural hematomas could have happened weeks or months before symptoms appeared. And, in fact, doctors in baby Ryan’s case say they found dried blood alongside the fresh blood, indicating an earlier brain bleed. Supporters of SBS reject the notion that a hematoma can re-bleed.

But because the exact date of the earlier suspected hematoma could not be ascertained, and thus the person caring for Ryan at the time could not be identified, Mehdi was not convicted of what was believed to be an earlier injury.

The defense maintained that Ryan’s symptoms that displayed on Dec. 8 could have been from an earlier injury resulting from something far less sinister than violent shaking—it could have been a simple fall and bumped head.

“Children and adults get these [delayed symptoms] for the same reasons,” Uscinski explained. “A skull can expand in babies; it has to. Adults get the same problem because as you get older your brain shrinks, so you have space outside the brain that can accommodate the bleeding. You can harbor a subdural hematoma and be OK until or unless it expands to a certain point.”

At that point, building pressure on the brain leads to the obvious symptoms, and the victim is taken to a doctor, Uscinski said. But supporters of SBS insist that the injury in such a case occurred within two to four hours of the symptoms.

Doctors’ involvement in suspected child abuse goes back many years, the neurosurgeon said.

“Pediatricians always believed child abuse existed,” he said, “but it was hard to pin down because it happened behind closed doors and the children wouldn’t talk about it. But they had all these unexplained injuries—broken bones, cigarette burns and others that were not so obvious. There were no labels for the injuries.”

For years pediatricians were reluctant to report on the injuries they saw in children. But in the 1960s a group of activists got together and modeled legislation to mandate the reporting of suspected child abuse.

DOWN BY LAW Dennis Latimer, defense attorney for Mehdi Belahbib, says shaken baby syndrome has created “an industry” of advocates whom he calls “Scientists who have lost their scientific way.”

Photo By Sara Sipes

“Even if the pediatricians were remotely suspicious they were urged to report it,” Uscinski said. “From this legislation, child protection services began springing up across the country, and they became very powerful.”

In the early 1970s, Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota sponsored legislation that required doctors to report all suspected child abuse injuries.

“If you report in good faith, you’re protected no matter what the final determination,” Uscinski said. “However, if you don’t report and someone else down the line says it is child abuse, you can lose your license, your practice, everything. And it’s happened.

“So now you have a situation where a doctor has every reason to report suspected child abuse and absolutely no reason not to. Now, if the scientific basis is good, OK. But if it’s not, then it’s messy, and that is what we have here.”

The day police arrested Mehdi Belahbib, he was released on $50,000 bail. His parents, who live in France, mortgaged their home. At any time, friends say, Belahbib could have fled the country, abandoned what was left of his family and gone back to France to live with his parents.

But he didn’t. He told his friends this was America and that he believed in the court system here.

But, even assisted by Denny Latimer, whom many consider one of the best criminal-defense attorneys in the area, Belahbib was found guilty. Essentially, he couldn’t prove he did not shake his baby, a requirement that runs counter to the popular notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

After the trial a juror wrote Latimer to say that nearly half of the jury members believed they were convicting Belahbib for negligence, not for shaking his baby and causing it harm. And since none of the jury knew the sentencing guidelines, they may well have thought they were convicting him of a crime that carried a relatively light sentence.

“I would like you or someone to read this letter in hopes the judge will have mercy on Mehdi,” juror Jerry Kirkland wrote to Latimer.

And indeed Judge Hermanson had the discretion to sentence Belahbib to 12 years, but noting the young’s man’s lack of any criminal background, support of friends and pleasant disposition, he chose the middle range.

Legal expenses have drained Belahbib’s family and friends. Filing an appeal may cost as much as $50,000. In the meantime he waits to be transferred from the Butte County Jail to a state prison. And every weekend his loyal visitors come to check on him.

He is allowed to make collect calls during the week. Maria won’t know he’s been transferred until the day the calls stop. Ryan, in the meantime, stays with a foster family somewhere in the Sacramento area.

“I’ve lost the two things I love most in life,” Maria has told her friends.

Deputy District Attorney Kristen Lucena, who prosecuted the case, insists justice was done. The medical evidence supporting shaken baby syndrome is “overwhelmingly clear,” she said. “When you see a child with retinal hemorrhaging—that is telling, very telling.”

She said that Uscinski’s arguments “are not accepted by the medical community.

“He just doesn’t believe in it,” she said. “And he does that across the country, charging $10,000 plus a consulting fee of $750 per hour.”

Lucena said she thinks what swayed the jury, the greatest emotion, was not anger but “the sadness knowing that this little boy has to live in this condition for the rest of his life.”

Indeed, one of the defense objections in the case was the fact that Lucena brought the baby into the courtroom for the jury to see. This, Latimer said, was unprecedented.

Lucena said bringing the baby into court was perfectly appropriate.

“I think that in any case where you’ve got great-bodily-injury and injury charges, where the people must be able to prove great bodily injury as a result of the defendant’s conduct, it is perfectly OK to show a scar or the fact they can’t use a limb.”

She added that she had litigated the issue before the judge, who ruled that viewing the child was the best evidence.

Lucena also dismissed any charges of racism in the prosecution of the case, though some who watched the trial noted that she pointed out that Belahbib was a French Moroccan and Maria was Mexican American. During the questioning, Lucena suggested that maybe divergent cultural backgrounds could lead to tensions in a marriage.

“The verdict was supported by the overwhelming evidence in the case, and there is absolutely nothing to fit any conclusion that it was based on his race,” the prosecutor said.

“The jury based it on the medical evidence. You know, kids don’t just walk into hospitals with internal bleeding and retinal hemorrhages and impact injuries on their head from not having sustained significant head trauma. It is a very clear case of intentional child abuse.”

The only external injury found on Ryan was a small bruise discovered on the left side of his head two days after his parents brought him to the hospital.

Lucena said she understood the support Belahbib received from friends and people in the community. His file includes a number of letters of support written to the judge attesting to the young father’s good and gentle nature.

“I agree across the board with people who said Mehdi is a nice guy, that this was way out of character for him,” Lucena said.

“We found almost no one who said he would be expected to do this. And people have a difficult time understanding why. But there is just no other reasonable explanation, and he was the only one with the child. Was this out of character? Yes, but unfortunately people do things out of character.”

Defense attorney Latimer says no case has upset him more in his 33 years of practice.

“I do not believe there is honesty in the medical community about shaken baby syndrome,” he said.

He said that last summer he attended an annual conference on the syndrome held in Salt Lake City. “I saw some doctor get up and say, ‘We need to stop telling people that a short fall cannot cause this type of injury,’ and he was shouted down by the other doctors.”

These doctors, Latimer contends, work with children who have been through a horrible injury, and they feel that someone must be blamed. “It can’t be God; it can’t be the doctor; it can’t be the institution charged with protecting the babies.”

Latimer says the Belahbib case in not typical.

“Normally,” he said, “there is some type of character trait: drunkenness, drug abuse, a history of violence, the accused doesn’t like his wife, his parents or the children. Mehdi Belahbib, by all accounts, is a wonderful father, husband, son and friend.

“You usually find some precursor behavior that indicates they should not have children. But in this case he couldn’t wait. He went to Lamaze classes, brought his family over from France, and they had a wonderful, beautiful religious event when the baby was born. This is all inconsistent with the idea of shaken baby syndrome, and I don’t believe it happened.”

What drives the forces behind shaken-baby-syndrome prosecution, Latimer said, is not easily explained. “The motivation is complicated,” he said. “Where there is a victim, they need to find a perpetrator. They have a target [and a] soft-boiled medical opinion, one that won’t meet the rigors of scientific inquiry.”

Latimer, who is now preparing for his client’s appeal, says he has a gut feeling as to his client’s innocence. “I think there are a lot of things that can cause this,” he said, “but there is a tremendous lack of objective scientific inquiry into what they are.

“I do not have a crystal ball. I believe that Mehdi did not shake his baby in a manner that would cause the baby to be damaged. But I was not there. I don’t know.”

That sentiment is echoed by juror Jerry Kirkland, who wrote the letter to Latimer about some of the jurors’ confusion in the case.

“God and Mehdi are the only ones that really know what happened that day," Kirkland wrote, "and for us to try to make a judgment on why Ryan is the way he is today is almost impossible."