By Sam Stanton
With the parents of a dead 10-week-old baby watching from the front row of a downtown Sacramento courtroom, lawyers in the trial of former day care center owner Sheila Caceres sparred this morning over whether she is responsible for the baby's 2011 death.
Prosecutor Nancy Cochrane went on for more than 90 minutes in her forceful closing argument, laying out a web of lies she says Caceres told detectives and urging a Sacramento Superior Court jury to convict her of felony child endangerment.
"I'm going to ask you to hold Ms. Caceres responsible for what she didn't do," Cochrane told the panel of six men and six women. "She didn't help Avin."
Caceres, 32, is accused of leaving the boy asleep upstairs in a portable playpen in a bedroom closet. Authorities say she saw the baby was in distress and that she placed him on his side, rubbed his back and walked away without calling for help.
With Avin's parents, Dave and Rachelle Rominger, watching and occasionally becoming emotional, Cochrane explained the prosecution theory that Caceres called family members in a panic after finding the baby in distress, but that never called 911.
Instead, she allegedly induced her daughter to lie to detectives and lied to them herself about where and when she found the baby.
Cochrane contends Caceres routinely left babies upstairs in her 2,800-square-foot Mather home in violation of state licensing regulations and that Avin was up there alone on Feb. 23, 2011.
When Dave Rominger arrived to pick up his son around 4:45 p.m that day, he said Caceres acted normally and went upstairs to get him, then came running downstairs with the baby screaming for him to call 911.
The prosecution contends Caceres knew at the time that Avin had fallen ill but that Caceres made a decision not to call for help.
Defense attorney Joe Welch argued in his 45-minute closing that although Caceres did lie to investigators, but that the theory that she knew Avin was in trouble was ludicrous.
"A woman of more patience I've never met," Welch said. "A woman with more maternal instinct I've never met.
"And to think she would leave a baby in distreass is absurd."
The coroner has been unable to explain why Avin died, but has said medical intervention might have saved him.
Welch contends Avin died of sudden infant death syndrome and that nothing could have saved the baby.
He criticized the actions of a sheriff's detective who he said bullied Caceres after he discovered she had lied to him and claimed that Avin was sleeping downstairs when she found him.
He conceded that Caceres, who also faces a misdemeanor charge for violating regulations by letting infants sleep upstairs, did that to keep them from being awakened by other children.
"Guilty as charged," Welch told the jury.
Welch also cited one of his paid experts, who testified that Caceres lied because she was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.
He told the jury that he was offended by Cochrane's criticism of him paying two experts $14,000 to come testify for the defense, including Dr. William O'Donohue, who made the PTSD diagnosis 18 months after Avin's death.
"Dr. O'Donohue, he's a good guy and he tells the truth," Welch said. "I don't hire whores."
Cochrane is scheduled to present her rebuttal argument following a lunch break, and Judge Sharon A. Lueras is expected to hand the case to the jury later today.