Saturday, 2:15 PM
Photos of Haleigh Poutre's injuries prompt tears during trial of alleged abuser
By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff
SPRINGFIELD - A former emergency room employee broke down crying this morning when she reviewed photographs that she had taken of Haleigh Poutre's battered body shortly after the girl was brought to a Westfield hospital, images that were among more than a dozen introduced as evidence during the first full day of testimony in the child abuse trial of Haleigh's stepfather, Jason Strickland.
"Do these photographs fully and accurately show the parts of the body that you took that day?" asked prosecutor Laurel Brandt in Hampden Country Superior Court.
"Yes," replied Dawn Walz through tears as she testified about her contact with 11-year-old Haleigh and her family on Sept. 11, 2005.
This afternoon, the prosecutor distributed the photographs from Noble Hospital, along with others taken later at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, to jurors.
The pictures showed numerous sizeable wounds and burn marks across Haleigh's body, including cuts near one of Haleigh's eyes and her chin, and pronounced, circular reddened wounds on her chest and lower back. One photo also shows a deep bloodied wound on her head, which is believed to be related to the severe head trauma that put the child into a coma that fall.
Walz was one of six prosecution witnesses, mostly medical personnel, who took the stand today in the trial before Superior Court Judge Judd Carhart. Jason Strickland and his wife, Holli Strickland, have been accused of horrific child abuse against Haleigh over at least several years, culminating in a near-fatal beating.
Though local residents had filed more than a dozen anonymous complaints to the state's child-protection agency, alleging Haleigh was being abused in her Westfield home, the state authorities dismissed the allegations saying that doctors and therapists believed Holli Strickland's account that Haleigh had a psychological disorder causing her to hurt herself, sometimes severely.
Holli Strickland, who adopted Haleigh, died shortly after the couple was arrested. The adoptive mother's body was found alongside her grandmother's in what police say was a murder-suicide in West Springfield.
Prosecutors argue that Jason Strickland participated in the abuse, or at least knew about his wife's cruel treatment of Haleigh but did nothing to stop it. They say the 34-year-old auto mechanic, at the very least, participated in a "joint venture" with his wife to conceal the child abuse that was so consistently inflicted on the child.
In evidence presented today, prosecutors showed that Haleigh was near death when she was brought to Noble Hospital, her body temperature about 80 degrees, her pulse under 40 beats a minute, and her pupils dilated and fixed. She was unresponsive to stimuli, while also having trouble breathing on her own.
Walz and another nurse, Rebecca Blanchard of Baystate Medical Center, both gave testimony suggesting that Holli Strickland did not seem particularly upset on the day that emergency room trauma staff was trying desperately to revive her adoptive daughter. Walz said Holli Strickland wore a tear-less "blank look" when she emerged from the Noble emergency room where Haleigh lay unconscious. Blanchard said when she first saw the adoptive mother, "she walked in with freshly applied makeup and her hair had been recently brushed." She also said she noticed Holli Strickland's fresh lipstick.
"She appeared somewhat removed from the situation," she testified.
Blanchard said that when she interviewed the couple about what happened to Haleigh, Holli Strickland dominated the conversation, talking about how the girl had suffered a bad case of the flu the night before, and had inexplicably lost consciousness. Blanchard said that Jason Strickland spoke only once, saying that Haleigh had "glazed eyes" in recent days.
"He was a very quiet, stoic man," she said.
Defense attorneys cross-examined the witnesses, largely focusing on the stepfather's remote relationship to what had transpired that September weekend when Haleigh came to the hospital. Defense attorneys have argued that Jason Strickland, like doctors and therapists who saw Haleigh, had believed his wife's version of events, that the girl had a self-abusive emotional disorder.
This case, one of the most horrific alleged child abuse cases in the state, also attracted national attention when the state nearly pulled Haleigh off life support in the fall of 2005. Just when the state's highest court ruled that the state child protection agency could let her die because her medical situation had been deemed "hopeless," Haleigh began breathing on her own.
She has now recovered to the point of being able to speak some simple sentences, and remains in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital in Brighton, where she also attends a day school. Prosecutors have said they do not plan to call Haleigh to the stand, though defense attorneys said they have not yet made up their mind.
The trial, which is expected to last a total of two or three weeks, resumes tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Springfield.
Patricia Wen can be reached at email@example.com.