Imprisoned father Moises Ibarra cannot let doctors take his son Christopher off life support — or else he may be charged with murder.
Eight-month-old Christopher Ibarra has been in a coma, breathing with the help of a respirator, since December when, prosecutors allege, his father shook and threw him into his crib during an argument with the boy's mother.
Moises Ibarra, 23, is in a Santa Ana, Calif., jail awaiting trial on child abuse charges while his infant son lies motionless in his hospital crib. Medical experts in a social services report on Christopher's case believe his brain damage is so severe he has no chance at recovery.
Christopher's mother, Tamara Sepulveda, also 23, does not want to see her son suffer anymore and wants him pulled off life support. However, she has brain damage from a childhood injury and social workers blame her for not doing more to protect Christopher, especially since her relationship with her boyfriend was so volatile. She has temporarily lost her rights as a parent to decide Christopher's fate.
Moises has refused to let doctors take his son off life support. According to his public defender, David Dworakowski, Moises is hoping for a miracle and wants to explore all medical options before deciding whether Christopher should be taken off life support. There is a debate, Dworakowski has argued in court, over Christopher's chances of recovery.
Conflict of Parent’s Interests
Prosecutors and Ibarra's detractors believe he is only interested in keeping himself from being prosecuted for murder. Police officials have said they would recommend murder charges to the prosecutor's office if Christopher dies. Christopher has been taken out of his parents' care and placed in the temporary custody of Orange County's Child and Family Services.
A family court judge has appointed a legal guardian to represent Christopher and his best interests, a move challenged by Ibarra. This week a municipal court judge is hearing Christopher's case, and he will decide who will ultimately determine the boy's fate.
"The question is whether the child will be able to walk out of the hospital alive, whether he will stand a chance of staying alive outside of the hospital environment," said Alex Capron, professor of law at the University of Southern California. "As a rule of thumb, usually the best way of handling situations of life support is to have a parent or parents take responsibility — they would know the child's best overall interests and day-by-day needs.
"What you have here is a question of whether there is a conflict of interest," Capron said. "Whether there is reason to believe the dad in this case would make a decision that would not be in the best interests of the child."
Feeding a Murder Defense?
But Christopher's court-appointed lawyer, Harold LaFlamme, faces a dilemma. If he decides to take Christopher off life support and the child dies, he arguably gives the boy's father a potential defense in a murder trial.
"If some third party makes a decision to turn off the juice, then you are giving the defendant parent a defense, 'I didn't kill the kid, the child's attorney did.'" LaFlamme told the Los Angeles Times last month.
Still, legal experts say Ibarra can attempt that defense but it is an invalid argument. Neither the doctors who may pull the plug nor the lawyers who may make the life or death decision put Christopher in his comatose state.
"It's really not a defense," said Gerald Uelman, law professor at Santa Clara University. "You cannot argue that the lawyer is responsible for the death when he had nothing to do with events that led to the child's condition."
Moises Ibarra denies hurting his child. Dworakowski has argued in court that Ibarra is a loving father who is grief-stricken by his son's condition and only trying to explore all medical options. Christopher's interests, he said, are Ibarra's priority, and he will maintain hope for Christopher's recovery as long as there is some hope in the medical community.
LaFlamme has said he will explore several opinions in the medical community before deciding whether Christopher should be taken off life support — a task he does not relish.
"Am I doing him a service by keeping him alive? I don't know [yet]," he told the Los Angeles Times. "If the medical community says it is cruel to keep him alive, then I might have to make some choices."
LaFlamme did not respond to repeated requests for comment from ABCNEWS.com.
Reminiscent of Another Abused Baby
Christopher's story is somewhat reminiscent of the Baby Mariah case in New York City where doctor Malcolm Scoon was convicted of manslaughter for shaking his 5-month-old daughter and causing injuries that led to her death in 1996.
The case generated headlines when doctors at Long Island Jewish Medical Center declared Mariah brain-dead, a victim of shaken baby syndrome, and Scoon and his wife Lois came under investigation for child abuse. Hospital officials wanted to disconnect Mariah from life support, but the Scoons refused to grant permission.
A judge granted the hospital's request to take the child off life support, but the potential issues of the parents' conflict of interest with the hospital and their child's welfare were never resolved. New York Cardinal John O'Connor intervened in the case and at his request — and with a judge's permission — the child was transferred to St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center, where she died while still on life support. Five months later, Scoon was charged with manslaughter.
Arguably, taking away a parent's rights — even temporarily — before he's been convicted could be considered a presumption of guilt. However, in cases of alleged child abuse, courts' main priority is supposed to be children's welfare.
"His [Christopher's legal guardian] obligation is to assess whether the child could ever recover, and if not, whether he is doing a disservice to the child by keeping him on life support," said Uelman. "On a petition to terminate parental custody, the standard is what's in the best interests of the child. … Even if a person was acquitted in criminal court, rights as a parent could remain terminated and he would have to file a petition regain custody."
Moises Ibarra is expected to go on trial for child abuse later this year. However, if a judge decides that he does not have the right to determine whether Christopher lives or dies, Moises could be facing a murder trial. As Christopher lies motionless in his crib, both his mother and father await a miracle — but one wishes for life while the other hopes for mercy in death.