Sacto 9-1-1
February 5, 2013
PTSD defense allowed in day care center trial

By Sam Stanton
sstanton@sacbee.com

The lawyers in the trial of day care operator Sheila Caceres battled this morning over whether a psychologist should be allowed to testify that Caceres suffered from post traumatic stress disorder when she gave conflicting stories about the death of a baby in her care in February 2011.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon A. Lueras ruled after more than an hour of spirited questioning that Reno psychologist William O'Donohue may testify, but she added that he cannot present evidence to the jury about personal problems and childhood traumas Caceres suffered.

The trial over the death of 10-week-old Avin Rominger is now in its second week and prosecutor Nancy Cochrane said she expects to wrap up her case today after more testimony from Sacramento sheriff's Detective Darin Pometta. Caceres is accused of a felony count of child endangerment for allegedly delaying a call to 911 when she first saw Avin was in distress.

The coroner has said the baby's death is unexplained, but that he might have been saved by medical intervention.

A medical expert testified for the defense Monday that Avin died of sudden infant death syndrome and that nothing could have saved the baby.

Caceres once owned Sheila's Garden Day Care in Mather, a highly regarded child care center until Avin's death. She subsequently accepted a lifetime ban by the state on operating or working at a day care but she maintains she did nothing wrong in Avin's death.

Detectives say she changed her story about where Avin had been sleeping, and O'Donohue is expected to testify that she suffered depression, grief and PTSD stemming from his death that left her confused.

During questioning outside the presence of the jury, O'Donohue said he based his diagnosis on a review of records in the case and an interview with Caceres last October, about 18 months after Avin's death.

He said Caceres had suffered significant events in her childhood, including abandonment by her mother at a young age, and was left to help raise a younger sibling.

O'Donohue said Caceres suffered grief after Avin's death and was depressed when he saw her, and added that he determined she was suffering from PTSD when detectives interviewed her immediately after Avin died.

"That was not a picture of somebody who was functioning normally," he said of her interviews with detectives, "but somebody who was traumatized."

Cochrane questioned O'Donohue sharply about his diagnosis and noted that she had had dealings with him at least three previous times. She also noted that the bulk of his testimony as an expert witness is spent working for the defense in child molestation cases, and that he is due to testify Wednesday in the trial of Shane Vicars, the former Sierra Oaks Elementary School teacher accused of molesting children.

The judge agreed to allow the psychologist's testimony later during the trial, but said he could not raise issues about Caceres' childhood.

After that ruling, the jury was brought into the courtroom and Pometta continued testifying about his investigation of the baby's death and the conflicting stories both Caceres and her daughter, Alexandra, initially gave.

"There had been discrepancies and lies...," Pometta said under questioning from defense attorney Joe Welch.

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