Jury selection begins in Haleigh Poutre case

Relates to:
Date: 2008-10-30
Source: boston.com

Opening remarks in stepfather's trial may come Monday

By Patricia Wen

SPRINGFIELD - Jury selection will continue today in the child abuse trial of the stepfather of 14-year-old Haleigh Poutre, the brain-damaged girl who almost died from an alleged beating in her Westfield home and later, when the state nearly pulled her off life support.

At the start of the trial of Jason Strickland yesterday, Hampden County Superior Court Judge Judd Carhart excused more than five dozen jurors who said they could not be impartial because, among other reasons, they had made up their mind against Strickland based on the intense coverage of the case or could be swayed against the defendant based on the violent nature of the child's injuries.

Numerous jurors were also excused when they said the anticipated length of the trial, two to three weeks, would cause them to miss too much work or interrupt important plans.

The judge said he expects opening statements Monday at the earliest, and evidence in the days ahead is expected to come from law enforcement officials, doctors, psychiatrists, relatives, social workers, teachers, and neighbors, among others.

Dressed in a blue blazer and tie, Strickland, a 34-year-old auto mechanic, watched intently as prospective jurors answered the judge's questions.

He is accused of participating, along with his wife, Holli, in a pattern of violent child abuse against Haleigh, culminating in traumatic head injures that left her unconscious in September 2005.

Prosecutors acknowledge that Strickland's wife, who had adopted Haleigh, was the major caretaker of the girl, but they say Jason Strickland had a role in - or at least was aware of - the brutal treatment of Haleigh.

Defense attorneys are expected to depict the stepfather as the family's hard-working breadwinner who kept a distance from the day-to-day running of the home. His attorneys have said Strickland had long believed his wife's account, backed by numerous doctors and therapists, that Haleigh's many bruises and cuts were from a psychological disorder that caused her to hurt herself.

The stepfather alone faces charges in this criminal trial, however, because Holli Strickland died in an apparent murder-suicide with her grandmother shortly after being charged with abuse. Details of those deaths, which have remained sealed, may emerge in this case.

Haleigh, who now lives in a rehabilitation facility in Brighton, has recovered to the point where she can speak simple sentences and attend a day school. Prosecutors, who had said they wanted to call her as a witness, have since changed their minds. Defense attorneys declined to say whether they may call her to testify. If Haleigh is called, the judge has said he will convene a special hearing to determine her competency.

The only other child who may take the witness stand is Samantha Poutre, 12, who, as Holli Strickland's biological daughter, shared a room with Haleigh.

Samantha's statements to police have changed over the past few years, the Globe has previously reported. She once insisted that Haleigh's head injuries were caused by a back flip in the basement gone awry. Now she is expected to implicate Jason and Holli Strickland in Haleigh's traumatic brain damage.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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