Once in Coma, Girl May Testify Against Alleged Attacker

Haleigh Poutre has apparently recovered to the extent she may testify.

March 3, 2008 — -- More than two years after Haleigh Poutre was so brutally beaten she was left in a coma from which she was never expected to revive, the 14-year-old girl may be well enough to testify against the man accused of abusing her.

Haleigh, who was once thought to be so irreversibly brain damaged that doctors planned to remove her from life support, has spent the last two years recovering at the Franciscan Hospital for Children near Boston.

She began breathing on her own and showing other signs of brain activity in January 2006, just days before doctors planned to remove her ventilator.

Now, she is reportedly able to communicate and recall her alleged attack.

Her recovery may set up a dramatic confrontation if she takes the witness stand and testifies against her stepfather, Jason Strickland, who is accused of beating her into a coma in September 2005.

It was Strickland who fought to keep Haleigh alive in late 2005 when the Massachusetts Department of Social Services sought to remove her from life support.

"It's nothing short of phenomenal to have someone who is essentially given up for dead survive this and come out of a coma and be able to articulate what happened to her," said Tim Burke, a former prosecutor and longtime criminal defense lawyer in Boston.

According to court documents filed by Strickland's defense attorney, Haleigh has made abuse allegations against her stepfather. Court papers asking to postpone Strickland's trial say his attorney, Alan Black, has received new child abuse reports from the district attorney's office.

"It appears from [the report] that the victim is now making statements alleging abuse by the defendant," the papers say.

"This creates issues concerning competency and her ability to testify and recall events in light of her severe head trauma," say the court papers, which were first reported last week by the Boston Globe and the Springfield Republican.

The prospect of seeing Haleigh on the witness stand disturbs her biological mother, who gave up custody of her daughter when the girl was 4 and who has been barred from visiting her by the Department of Social Services.

"I'm worried about her emotional state," Allison Avrett, who now says she regrets relinquishing custody, told ABC News. "I don't think she should have to relive this."

Among all the relatives and doctors who have moved in and out of Haleigh's short life, it appears that Strickland may in fact deserve the most credit for keeping her alive.

Haleigh was brought to the hospital Sept. 11, 2005, by Strickland and Haleigh's aunt, who was also her adopted mother. Haleigh, then 11, was comatose and covered in bruises, court records say; her body temperature had dropped to 85 degrees.

The Massachusetts DSS was given custody of the girl and in October 2005 sought to remove her from life support.

Strickland fought to keep her alive, though DSS and judges noted at the time that Strickland had an incentive to do so: He could have faced murder charges if she died.

At a court hearing, doctors from Baystate Medical Center testified that Haleigh had suffered irreversible brain damage.

"Short of developing a technique for a complete brain transplant, there is no hope that medical treatment will be discovered in the foreseeable future which could reverse" her condition, a doctor said, according to court records.

On Jan. 17, 2006, the state's Supreme Judicial Court said it would allow DSS to take Haleigh off the ventilator that was keeping her alive.

But before doctors took any action, Haleigh reportedly began breathing on her own. Avrett, who was still visiting Haleigh at the time, told ABC News that her daughter's eyes began following her around the room and would blink in response to questions.

Haleigh is now in rehabilitation at the Franciscan Hospital for Children near Boston, though her level of recovery is not clear. Wendy Murphy, Avrett's attorney, said Haleigh is enrolled at the day school at the hospital.

Though she has not seen Haleigh recently, Murphy said she was told the girl is able to communicate through a keyboard and speak some words. The Boston Globe, citing an anonymous source with knowledge of the girl's care, reported similar information.

Though the girl's recovery is unusual, Larry Goldstein, director of the Center for Cerebrovascular Disease at Duke University Medical Center, said there have been other reported cases of people recovering from persistent vegetative states within a few months.

"It's unusual, but not unheard of," he said.

Haleigh has been at the hospital for more than two years, and her future remains uncertain.

Avrett, who gave birth to Haleigh when she was 17, gave up custody of her daughter four years later. The DSS had accused her of being an unfit mother, in part because of an allegation that her then-boyfriend had sexually abused Haleigh.

Avrett's sister Holli Strickland became Haleigh's adoptive mother. She was also charged in the September 2005 attack that left the girl comatose. Eleven days later, she died in what was ruled a murder-suicide pact with her grandmother.

According to the Globe, citing an anonymous source, Haleigh began to express fears about seeing Avrett, after the woman began paying regular visits to her biological daughter. Avrett told ABC News that her visits were suspended in July 2006.

Avrett said she was never given an explanation for ending her visits and called the allegation that Haleigh was afraid of her "outrageous."

"I never saw any signs of that," she said. "She smiled."

Murphy said DSS told Avrett not to speak publicly about the case and said that her visits were suspended in retaliation for criticizing the department. Avrett has sued DSS to reinstate her visits.

A Social Services spokesman declined to comment on the case, citing a judge's gag order. The Hampden County, Mass., district attorney's office also declined to comment.

Legal experts said they expected Haleigh's injuries to be an issue in the trial, should she take the stand. Though Haleigh's case is unusual, similar legal issues arise when a young child testifies or when a witness claims to recall suppressed memories, said Brad Bailey, a former prosecutor in Boston.

Bailey said he would expect a judge to hold a hearing to determine whether Haleigh's memories are reliable and free from outside influences.

Avrett's old boyfriend, who was accused of sexually abusing Haleigh, was also named Jason, though Murphy said Haleigh called him Daddy J.

A judge would also want to make sure that Haleigh is capable of understanding her surroundings, understands the difference between the truth and a lie and the consequences of lying, Bailey said.

Avrett says the possibility of convicting Strickland is not worth having Haleigh testify.

"I want for her to be able to heal and be left alone," she said.