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Stepfather pleads not guilty in assault on 12-year-old

SPRINGFIELD -- When Jason Strickland first came into her family, Allison Avrett thought he was a nice enough man who could be trusted taking care of her daughter.

Yesterday, Avrett controlled her anger in Springfield Superior Court while watching Strickland plead not guilty to charges that he played a role in the abuse that landed 12-year-old Haleigh Poutre in the hospital with severe brain injuries last September.

The case drew national attention as state officials sought to have Haleigh removed from life support and as the comatose girl became the focus of a right-to-die debate.

``It upsets me that he's walking around free on bail," Avrett said after Strickland was ordered to return to court Sept. 29. Judge Tina Page kept his bail at $5,000 after he denied the six assault and battery charges.

Avrett gave up her parental rights to Haleigh in 2001, letting her sister adopt the girl.

By last September, Haleigh had been beaten so severely that her brain stem was sheared and she fell into a coma. Shortly after she was hospitalized on Sept. 11, the Stricklands were arrested and charged with assault.

Strickland's lawyer, Greg Schubert, declined to comment.

About a week after the couple were arrested, Holli Strickland died with her grandmother in an apparent murder-suicide.

After the state Department of Social Services took custody of Haleigh, a juvenile court judge granted the agency permission to remove her from life support.

But following a battle between the DSS and Strickland Haleigh began breathing on her own and responding to questions and was admitted to Franciscan Hospital.

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