New trial for accused baby shaker

The second trial of a Chico man whose conviction on child abuse charges was overturned by an appeals court last July got a fitful start Monday, when the presiding judge granted a continuance in the case. Mehdi Belahbib, who prosecutors say shook his infant son, causing permanent brain damage, will now have until Jan. 31 to either hire an attorney or opt for a public defender.

Belahbib’s case was controversial from the start. It started with an incident in December 2001, when Mehdi and his wife Maria showed up at Enloe Medical Center with their 3-month-old son Ryan, who had apparently stopped breathing about 15 minutes before arriving at the hospital. Doctors revived the baby and sent him to UC Davis Medical Center, in Sacramento, for more-intensive treatment.

Ryan was diagnosed with swelling and bleeding of the brain and retinal hemorrhage, symptoms that are consistent with so-called shaken-baby syndrome (SBS), a condition that many doctors say is caused when a young child is shaken with forces equivalent to those experienced in a car crash. Yet a small but growing number of experts now dispute the very existence of SBS, saying those symptoms could have been caused by any number of factors. Ryan Belahbib experienced a difficult birth, including the use of forceps, and had been ill for a few weeks before his hospitalization.

Mehdi Belahbib, Ryan’s primary caregiver, instantly became the prime suspect in a high-profile child abuse case pursued with vigor by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office. At Belahbib’s trial, the prosecuting attorney called multiple witnesses who claimed Ryan’s injuries could be attributed only to SBS and even brought the child, who is now mentally impaired and possibly blind, into the courtroom.

Despite having called in his own witnesses to dispute the SBS theory, as well as having a crush of supporters who maintained that Mehdi was a caring, attentive father, Belahbib was convicted and sentenced in April 2003 to nine years in state prison. But on appeal, the 3rd District Court found that Butte County Superior Court Judge Gerald Hermansen had given incomplete or erroneous instructions to the jury. In essence, the jury was allowed to pick and choose between two of the prosecution’s theories instead of unanimously deciding what actually happened to Ryan.

Shortly after the court’s decision, Belahbib, who had by this time served more than a year in prison, was released on bail and allowed to return home pending a new trial.

One of the differences in his new trial is that the Belahbibs have reportedly spent every penny they had on Mehdi’s first trial and subsequent appeal. With expert testimony costing as much as $750 an hour, they may not be able to afford to retain their first lawyer, Chico attorney Dennis Latimer.

Latimer said Monday that he felt a personal connection to the case and hoped he would be able to defend Belahbib. Yet at the same time, he said, “It’s a financial burden, and there’s an awful lot of expense involved because of the expert witnesses. It’s not something like a drunk-driving case where you can just say, ‘We’re ready to retry.’ You have to really work hard on it.”

The Belahbibs were not available for comment by press time.