Judge says child abuse victim, Haleigh Poutre, will not be forced to testify against stepfather
by The Republican Newsroom
By BUFFY SPENCER
SPRINGFIELD - Haleigh Poutre, the little girl whose case sparked an overhaul of the state's system of oversight in incidents of child abuse and neglect, will not be required to testify at the upcoming trial of the man accused of abusing her three years ago.
Superior Court Judge Judd J. Carhart ruled this week that the now 14-year-old Haleigh, still undergoing treatment for a severe brain injury, will neither be ordered to testify at the trial of her stepfather Jason A. Strickland nor at a pre-trial competency hearing. The judge ruled in favor of two lawyers appointed to safeguard the girl's interests and the state Department of Children and Families who argued that forcing Poutre to testify would harm her.
The competency hearing was scheduled after the prosecutor said she expected to have Haleigh testify at the trial of Strickland, 32, formerly of Westfield, who stands accused of assault and battery.
In his ruling, Carhart did leave the matter open for requests for him to reconsider. He made the ruling following a Thursday hearing in Hampshire Superior Court, Northampton, where he is sitting this month. Two weeks ago, Carhart refused a defense request to move the trial out of Hampden County; the trial is set for Oct. 16 in the Springfield court.
The charges against Strickland and his wife, the late Holly A. Strickland, Haleigh's adoptive mother, came after the girl was brought to Noble Hospital in Westfield on Sept. 11, 2005, with a severe head injury. Within days of her arrest, Holly Strickland was dead in what West Springfield police determined was a murder-suicide at the hands of her grandmother.
The plan to have the child appear at trial came as Assistant District Attorney Laurel H. Brandt told the court in June that she expected Haleigh to be called as a witness for the prosecution. Defense attorney Alan J. Black then requested a competency hearing to determine her ability to testify.
Joseph A. Franco, the lawyer appointed by Carhart to protect Haleigh's interests in the Strickland case, said in a recent court filing that a review of Haleigh's medical records would "cast doubt on her competency to testify."
Franco wrote in his motion that based on "the present physical and psychological condition" of Haleigh, "she would suffer great emotional harm if she were required to appear before this court and answer questions on both direct and cross examination."
He wrote that a psychological examination of Haleigh was performed in March and April by a doctor at Franciscan Children's Hospital in Boston where she is now being treated.
"Based on the results of the evaluation, it has been recommended that Haleigh not be subjected to additional interviews, including testimony before the court," Franco wrote. Citing a number of examples of case law, Franco said it is apparent that testimony by Haleigh would be detrimental to her psychological well-being.
"Haleigh is a 14-year-old child who is psychologically younger than her years," Franco wrote.
In its request that Haleigh not be examined for competency at the scheduled hearing, the state Department of Children and Families, which has legal custody of Haleigh, spells out similar reasons. Scott R. Chapman, assistant regional counsel for the department, wrote that compelling Haleigh to testify would be harmful to her best interests.
Jason Strickland, who has pleaded innocent to all charges, was charged as a joint venturer with his wife. Under the prosecution's joint venture theory, Jason Strickland would be held responsible for his own acts against Haleigh and also acts by his late wife.
Haleigh's injuries were so severe that the state Department of Children and Families (formerly the Department of Social Services) at one point sought to have a feeding tube that was keeping her alive removed, saying the girl had no brain function. In February it was reported she had recovered enough to possibly testify in the criminal case.
Without Haleigh's testimony, it is unclear what witnesses the prosecution will use to present its case against Strickland. At an Oct. 26, 2005, Westfield District Court hearing which sent the case to the Superior Court, there was testimony from Haleigh's baby-sitter Alicia Weiss and from Rebecca Blanchard, pediatric intensive care nurse at Baystate Medical Center.
The Poutre case, in which Haleigh was initially left unresponsive and brain-damaged, served as an impetus for a major overhaul in the state's child care and protection services.