In the Jury Room: State v. Trujillo

On Feb. 1, 2003, 20-year-old Laura Trujillo brought the badly beaten body of her 2-year-old daughter, Alize, to the emergency room, where the toddler was then pronounced dead. The coroner said that it was one of the worst cases he had ever seen.

Soon after, Trujillo, who is confined to a wheelchair, was interrogated by the police. She initially told the police Alize's injuries might have been a result of a fall the day before. The police were suspicious and began to ask about Trujillo's live-in boyfriend of eight months, Randy Ramirez.

The detectives were able to prove that Ramirez was at home the night of Alize's death. When he was brought in for interrogation, he eventually confessed to beating the 2-year-old.

However, Helen Morgan, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, believed Trujillo was also responsible for her child's death.

"There is no question that these people were co-complicitors in abusing, and denying help to this child, that naturally resulted in her death," she said.

After Ramirez's confession, police charged both Ramirez and Trujillo with child abuse resulting in death, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 48 years.

Scott Reisch, Trujillo's court-appointed lawyer, argued that Trujillo was not equally responsible for Alize's death.

"You know, she's probably not going to get any type of mother-of-the-year awards. But I think that she tried to do her best with the situation she had," he said.

Before the trial began, the defense learned that Ramirez had agreed to testify against Trujillo in return for a lighter sentence. Alize's autopsy listed two separate causes of death — ruptured internal organs and a fractured skull.

Ramirez confessed to punching Alize in the stomach, but said he did not cause her head injuries. Morgan believed that Trujillo had inflicted the blows to Alize's head.

Reisch's defense strategy was to argue that Ramirez alone was responsible for all the injuries and that Trujillo was powerless to stop him. Trujillo's version of what happened on the night of Alize's death was the basis for his case.

"Randy was awake in the bedroom," she said, "and I told him to watch Alize, and I took my pills, and I went to sleep. And when I woke up the next morning, she was laying on the floor, and I didn't see her stomach moving. And I seen that her lips were purple. And that's when I woke Randy up and told him that Alize wasn't breathing."

According to the couple's friends and family, Ramirez and Trujillo had a volatile relationship. In fact, three months before Alize's death, Trujillo told Ramirez she was leaving him for good. That night, Trujillo was a victim of a shooting that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

The police initially questioned Ramirez, but he was not charged. Although Trujillo believed that Ramirez had nothing to do with the shooting, Reisch did not think it was a coincidence.

"I think that she was so mesmerized by this guy, in a sense, that she didn't want to believe that he could do anything wrong," he said.

Even though authorities had told Trujillo that Ramirez might be physically abusing Alize, Trujillo moved back in with him after the shooting. The prosecutor believed that Trujillo's love for Ramirez may have contributed to Alize's death.

"She still loves the guy," said Morgan. "She's sending him letters in jail, saying she loves him. I think it's a very unhealthy relationship on both ends, and Alize was caught in the middle. This is a child [who] had repeated episodes of physical abuse that had been on multiple occasions."

Trial Begins

Mychael Dave, Morgan's co-counsel, began his opening statement by describing the beating that Alize suffered on the night that she died: "On Feb. 1, 2003, Alize was beaten to death. She was beaten from the very top of her head to the very bottom of her feet. She was beaten to death by the defendant as well as by the defendant's boyfriend, Randy Ramirez."

Reisch quoted some of Ramirez's confession for the jury: "And Randy Ramirez is going to come in here, and he's going to tell you, 'I just lost it, and I punched Alize so hard that I ruptured her internal organs, and then I tried to hide it.' "

The prosecution's witness list included medical experts, called to testify about the injuries Alize had sustained on the night of her death and older injures also allegedly caused by abuse.

One of the prosecution's main witnesses was Dr. Katherine Wells, an expert in child abuse. Wells' theory was that Alize's death was a culmination of months of abuse.

Establishing a history of abuse was central to the prosecution's case. According to Colorado law, even if Trujillo's story about being asleep is true, she could still be charged in her daughter's death if she knew that Ramirez was abusing Alize and did nothing to protect her.

The state's most important witness was Trujillo's ex-boyfriend, Randy Ramirez.

Ramirez told the jury that on the fatal day, he had been smoking marijuana and fighting with Trujillo about other women. He admitted striking Alize hard in the stomach. He also said that later that night, he woke up and heard some strange sounds which he described as thumps. Although by his own account Ramirez did not see what was causing the sounds, the state wanted the jury to believe that those thumps were from Trujillo banging Alize's head on the floor.

On cross-examination by the defense, Ramirez said that after he had struck Alize, he gave her a bath, and that she several times struck her head on the bathtub.

When the defense began its case, Reisch was planning to call Trujillo as his main witness, but because he believed that Trujillo was still in denial about what Ramirez had done to her child, he instead decided to call Dr. Ann Seig, a psychiatrist who interviewed Trujillo before the trial, to testify on her behalf.

Seig told the court abuse Trujillo had received as a child may have affected her relationship with Ramirez.

"One of the hallmarks of an abusive, neglectful childhood is the ability to tolerate unbelievable abuse from a partner in order to delay abandonment, to continue in the seeming safety and security of a relationship that is known to that person," Seig testified.

In her closing argument, prosecutor Morgan tried to emphasize to the jury that in not protecting Alize from Ramirez, Trujillo was responsible for her death: "Members of the jury, after the last week you have seen that this defendant failed Alize in every manner possible. The testimony from the stand, the evidence, is replete with warning signal after warning signal that she chose to ignore."

Reisch closed the defense's case by attempting to focus the jury's attention on the actions of Randy Ramirez: "Randy Ramirez killed Alize Reigart. You do not want to convict an innocent person. She is not criminally responsible for the death of Alize."

Jury Deliberates

The jurors quickly agreed that Trujillo had not herself inflicted the fatal blows to Alize's body or head.

After approximately 10 ½ hours of tense deliberations, however, the jurors concluded that Trujillo had known and not tried to prevent some of the earlier abuse Alize endured, such as Ramirez flicking her ears, but that she had not been aware of the serious abuse that was taking place.

Trujillo was found "guilty of child abuse recklessly in that her actions caused any injury other than serious bodily injury to the child" — a class one misdemeanor. Trujillo received the maximum sentence of two years, which she is now serving in the Denver County Jail. Ramirez is serving a sentence of 30 years in prison.