A child abuse expert on Friday testified that the brain injuries 2-year-old Christopher Ripley suffered were too extensive to have been caused by an accidental fall from a few feet above the ground.
“I believe he was a victim of nonaccidental trauma, which caused him to die,” said Philip Hyden, medical director of The Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera.
Martin Martinez, 31, is accused of causing Christopher’s Oct. 2, 2014, death. The boy suffered a severe head injury Sept. 30 while home alone with Martinez and died at a hospital two days later.
Hyden, a pediatric physician, was called to consult on Christopher’s treatment when the boy was transferred from Doctors Medical Center in Modesto to the Madera hospital. The severe injuries the boy suffered were found on his brain. Only a minor fracture was found on the back of his head.
When Hyden examined Christopher, his “brain was essentially not working,” the pediatrician said. Hyden said the brain had suffered severe swelling, clamping the blood flow and stopping the supply of oxygen. There was also bleeding found just outside the brain.
The child abuse expert testified that these injuries were caused by moving the child very rapidly, causing the brain to shake back and forth inside the skull. Hyden said the injuries found on Christopher were part of the “cascade of factors” typically seen when a child is shaken or slammed.
While coming up with a diagnosis, Hyden said he took into account four differing versions of how Christopher could have been injured at his Modesto home on Pasadena Lane. Martinez initially told authorities that Christopher fell back when he swept the boy’s legs while the two were roughhousing.
Hyden spoke to Christopher’s mother, Amanda Crews, at the children’s hospital. Crews told Hyden that her boyfriend, Martinez, would never hurt Christopher. She told the expert that her boyfriend was wrestling with the toddler when Martinez picked up the child, and that Christopher arched his back and fell to the ground.
Hyden also learned of two other versions that Martinez gave investigators. Martinez said he was on his knees playing with Christopher, flipping the boy over his head when the child fell. The defendant also told police that Christopher accidentally fell and hit his head on a piece of furniture.
The child abuse expert testified that there was not enough force to cause the severe injuries Christopher had in any of the scenarios given to authorities. Only the gravitational force from a fall of 10 feet or higher could have caused the fatal brain injuries the boy suffered.
The hairline fracture found on the back of Christopher’s head shows only that there was an impact, such as slamming the child. But the expert said the fracture didn’t cause the toddler’s death.
“It was the swelling of the brain that caused the child to die,” Hyden said on the witness stand.
The kind of force needed to cause the brain swelling and bleeding would be multiple times the force of gravity, Hyden testified, enough that the person creating the force would know that it’s causing harm to the child.
Children Christopher’s age do not have the neck musculature needed to withstand such force, Hyden testified. He attended Christopher’s autopsy, and the pediatrician said that it further solidified his opinion that the child’s fatal injuries were nonaccidental.
Hyden said he learned that Crews had been gone for 10 minutes when Christopher was injured. She had gone to pick up her daughter, Elizabeth, and had told Martinez to change Christopher’s soiled diaper. The toddler was being potty-trained.
The expert testified that potty-training at 25 months old, Christopher’s exact age, is very early. He said it’s better to wait until the child is willing. “Some 2-year-olds can be potty-trained, I just don’t recommend it,” Hyden said in court.
In a lot of child abuse cases, potty-training and soiled diapers are the triggering factor, Hyden opined. It’s one of the top four reasons children are abused, and Hyden said he believes that’s what happened to Christopher. “But that’s all speculation,” Hyden testified.
The boy’s mother, Crews, 38, was found dead July 18 at her home on Nob Hill Court in east Modesto. Also found dead at the two-story house were her daughters, 6-month-old Rachael and 6-year-old Elizabeth; Martin Martinez’s mother, Anna Brown Romero, 57; and a 5-year-old girl believed to be Martinez’s niece. While authorities have said Martinez is the suspect in their deaths, they have not said when they will file charges against him.
Martinez has been formally charged only with murder and child abuse in Christopher’s death. Testimony in Martinez’s preliminary hearing, used to determine whether he will stand trial, continues Monday in Stanislaus Superior Court.