The Maricopa County Attorney's Office agreed this morning to a new trial for a man convicted in 1998 murder of his then-girlfriend's child.
Superior Court Judge Glenn Davis vacated Armando Castillo's conviction per the agreement and ordered a new trial as well as a status hearing to be held on February 16, to determine whether to release Castillo on bond.
Castillo has been in prison since 1998. Prior to going to prison, Castillo lived with his then-girlfriend, Clara Yates, and babysat her child, Steve Young Jr. According to court records filed by the Arizona Justice Project, Yates trusted Castillo with her son because he had three children of his own from another relationship.
On June 13, 1998, Yates left her son with Castillo while she went to work. When she returned, Castillo left to pick up his children so they could go swimming in their pool. Later that evening, Yates went to check on her son and found that he had "snot" coming out of his nose. Yates thought he was choking on his own vomit, and when she picked him up, he gasped and went unconscious.
Paramedics arrived a short while later and found that his airway was full of vomit. He was taken to the hospital and placed in intensive care. He died the next day.
During his autopsy, medical examiner Dr. Mark Fischione noted the presence of a subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages -- bleeding in the brain and eyes.
Dr. Kay Rauth-Farley, a child abuse specialist, was called by Phoenix police about the case, and concluded that Steven had been shaken, leading to his death.
Because shaken baby syndrome, or SDS, was believed at the time to result in immediate loss of consciousness, the police focused their investigation on the two people who had been with Young Jr. on that day: Yates and Castillo.
Castillo denied harming the child and passed two lie detector tests to that effect, but he was nevertheless charged with the crime. Fischione and Farley testified at trial that the bleeding was a sure-sign of abuse and Castillo was convicted, according to court records.
Shaken baby-syndrome had its heyday as a medical theory in the 1990s, and while it has not been entirely discredited it has become quite controversial in recent years. Last summer, New Times reported on the case of Lisa Randall, a daycare operator who was charged with murder in a similar case that was dismissed.
In 2007, Castillo learned that there was new debate over SBS. He sent the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's records in the case of Steven Young Jr. to a medical pathologist who concluded in 2008 that Steve Young Jr. did not die from SBS. From there, he contacted the Arizona Justice Project, which took his case.
Last April, project attorneys Stephen Leshner and Larry Hammond filed a petition for post-conviction relief requesting an evidentiary hearing for a new trial.
In their brief, they argued that Castillo's original attorney provided deficient counsel by not disputing the cause of death, that new medical research exists to cast doubt on SBS as the cause of death in this case, and that the jury, "armed with a different timeline" and "new evidence" that confirms "an older abdominal injury" would have been fatal, "probably would not have found Armando Castillo guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
In their petition, Leshner and Hammond point out that Steve Young Jr. had been sick in the days leading up to his collapse. He was not eating, had a fever, and was vomiting, leading them to think he had the flu. A series of strange bruises had begun to appear on his body, most notably on his abdomen.
According to court records, Steve Young Jr.'s father, Steve Young Sr., had not seen his son regularly after breaking up with Yates. That changed in April 1998, when he began seeing his son regularly. Steve Sr. watched his son from June 1-3 and 8-10. Around June 7, Yates noticed that Young Jr. had "unexplained" bruises on his abdomen and scrotum.
The brief recounts an incident where Castillo asked Young Jr. about his injuries and he said, "Owee, belly, Kelly," which Castillo took to mean Young's girlfriend.
"Just about two weeks before he died, Steven got a black eye. It was big and covered a good portion of his face, and Steve Sr. claimed it was caused by a tire swing; but Armando said when he asked Steven Jr. how it happened, Steven said, 'Owee, football, daddy,'" the brief states
The point in the petition is not that Clara Yates or Steve Young Sr. killed Steve Young Jr., but that Young Jr. did not die as a result of SBS and that other "leads" were present to investigators.
The Justice Project cites three experts in its brief to support its argument that Young Jr. did not die of Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The first is Dr. Janice Ophoven, assistant medical examiner for St. Louis County, Minnesota, who testifies that the diagnosis of SBS was not "scientifically sound."
Pediatric Neuroradiologist Dr. Patrick Barnes testified that the injuries sustained by Young Jr. were 3-7 days older than prosecutors believed, and that Young Jr.'s death was likely caused by oxygen deprivation rather than blunt trauma.
Finally, Dr. Patrick Hannon, a biomechanics expert, testified that the description of the child's brain given to the jury was "inaccurate," and argued that the lack of grip marks or damage to the spine indicated the baby had not been shaken. He claims that the likely cause of death was a blow to the abdomen that had left bruising.
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Castillo was on the verge of tears throughout today's hearing. He is a thin man with short and neat hair, who spent much of the hearing bent in prayer. When the judge walked in, he took a deep breath that could be heard in the back of the courtroom.
His parents, wife, uncles, and a good friend from Colorado came to the hearing to show their support, along with most of the Justice Project staff.
Armando Castillo's attorneys argue that he should be released on his own recognizance until trial, and noted that he was not a flight risk because his family had pledged their support, he has already served much of his sentence, and has a job lined up for him with local attorney Guy Brown.
Prosecutors disagree, noting that the charges - second-degree murder and child abuse - are serious, and that he should be released only on bond. The judge ordered a pretrial services hearing for next week to determine bond. From there, his trial is expected to begin within the next sixty days.