Baby-shaking conviction reversed

Chico father sentenced to nine years may get a second chance

FAMILY PORTRAIT<br>Mehdi Belahbib and his wife Maria visit baby Ryan at the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, December 2002. Ryan has remained in Maria’s care while Mehdi has served the first 15 months of a nine-year sentence in Corcoran State Prison in Kings County.

Mehdi Belahbib and his wife Maria visit baby Ryan at the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, December 2002. Ryan has remained in Maria’s care while Mehdi has served the first 15 months of a nine-year sentence in Corcoran State Prison in Kings County.

Courtesy Of Soumaya Errafi

Science or witchcraft: Baby-shaking syndrome is a medical theory used to explain--and in some cases prosecute--otherwise mysterious brain injuries suffered by infants. Prosecutors say there is ample evidence to support the legitimacy of the syndrome; critics say it is overused and akin to a witch hunt.

The conviction of a Chico man on charges of seriously injuring his infant son was reversed by a state appeals court this week, nearly 15 months after 25-year-old Mehdi Belahbib had started his nine-year sentence in state prison.

In February 2003 a Butte County jury found Mehdi Belahbib guilty of shaking his infant son Ryan with such force as to cause permanent brain damage. Or at least half the jury did. The other half, apparently, thought they were convicting Belahbib on a charge of child endangerment for taking too long to get the baby to the hospital after noticing there was something wrong.

Chuck Sevilla, the San Diego-based attorney who appealed Belahbib’s case, said the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction based on a constitutional error, in that Superior Court judge Gerald Hermanson did not instruct the jury that it had to find “unanimous guilt on the action of the defendant.”

Sevilla said the evidence presented to the jury allowed them to pick and choose between the prosecution’s endangerment charge of not getting Ryan to the hospital in a timely fashion and the charge of physically shaking the baby and causing injury.

“One of the jurors wrote a letter to the judge saying that half of the jury went one way and half went the other,” Sevilla said. “And that court [of appeals] found that is exactly what happened.”

The Butte County jury found Belahbib guilty because he could not explain the cause of his baby’s illness after he and his wife had taken Ryan to Enloe Medical Center. Doctors there 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 in the case, Kristen Lucena, relied on a much-debated medical theory popularly known as shaken-baby syndrome to explain Ryan’s condition.

There was also a discrepancy as to how long it took to get the baby to the hospital. The prosecution argued it was two hours, which constituted child endangerment. Belahbib and his supporters said the timeline was wrong.

The Court of Appeals ruling says, “The People emphasize that the child endangerment argument was only a ‘fall back position’ and ‘the overwhelming focus of the trial was on whether [defendant] had shaken [the victim].’ Even so, the mere fact that child endangerment by failing to timely seek medical care was an alternative to the prosecution’s main argument of child abuse by shaking provides no basis for us to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury unanimously accepted the main argument. On the record before us, it is just as likely that the jury accepted the alternate argument or, more to the point, did not unanimously agree on either crime at all.”

After the trial a juror said in a letter to defense attorney Dennis Latimer 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.

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

The latest ruling, Sevilla said, means Belahbib’s legal status will revert to pre-trial status, meaning he could be bailed out of Corcoran State Prison. The state now has 45 days to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision. If it does not act within that time, the case will come back to the jurisdiction of Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who first brought the charges two years ago.

Ramsey said the court ruled there was ample evidence presented in the case but that the jury was not properly instructed that it had to find unanimously on one prosecution theory or the other.

The DA said his office will have to review the state of the evidence in the case after more than a year has passed.

“Memories fade," he said. "People move away; we’ll have to see."