There were no CNN cameras at Tina Rodriguez' hearing last week, nor was the Bandera County Courtroom packed with onlookers and legal pundits like those who had lurked throughout the Andrea Yates trial.
There was only a shackled Rodriguez — who in 1999 was convicted of intentionally starving her infant son to death — a half-dozen family members, and most important, six new witnesses: medical experts, co-workers, and a sister whose testimony Rodriguez' lawyer says could have helped her client avoid a long jail term. Rodriguez, 29, is serving a life sentence; she could be eligible for parole in about 40 years.
On March 13, court-appointed attorney Adrienne Zuflacht asked Judge Steven Ables for a new trial based on evidence — testimony and facts that Rodriguez' previous legal team did not uncover — that could have exonerated the mother of four of capital murder.
Starvation didn't kill two-and-a-half-month-old Ramiro Perez, but a genetic disorder did, said two medical and nutritional experts, Dr. Steven Clark and Dr. Margarita Terán, who have extensively researched and written about "inborn errors of metabolism" in infants.
They testified that a metabolic short-circuiting — diabetes is an example of such a defect — prevented Ramiro from absorbing nutrients from his food, no matter how much Rodriguez fed him. "He was being fed," Terán said. "There is no doubt from this information."
Ramiro weighed about five-and-one-half pounds when he died on February 11, 1998, less than when he was born. A genetic disorder, pyruvic hydrogenase deficiency could have prevented Ramiro from converting blood sugar into energy for growth.
Terán and Clark based their conclusions on the blood chemistry data provided by the medical examiner's pathology report, albeit which both doctors characterized as inadequate. "I didn't have a complete `blood and metabolic` panel," Terán told the court. "If a kid under 1 year old dies, this is obligatory. It wasn't done. He `the medical examiner` did just barely enough tests to describe the case."
Yet, certain levels of blood sugars, proteins, and other blood chemistry listed in the medical report — some too high, some too low to support the starvation theory — immediately caught the scientists' attention. Cells in the pancreas were also normal; a starving baby's cells would have been enlarged, they testified.
"The medical examiner should have seen the red flags," Clark told the court. "Tina could have fed Ramiro normally and still died. It's highly unlikely a doctor would've noticed, but it's not a topic that would reach the general pediatric level."
The scientists said they also were moved by the testimony of Rodriguez' sister, Consuelo Rodriguez, who told the court "that baby was always crying and hungry, fed him two bottles."
"She fed him breast or bottle milk," testified Consuelo Rodriguez, the mother of five children. "Sometimes he'd eat two bottles more than usual. It was unusual that he ate so much."
Ramiro also had grown in height, had a normal head size, his organs were a normal weight and proportional to his body, according to the medical examiner's report.
In the U.S., two other child abuse cases have been dismissed due to findings of inborn errors of metabolism, according to medical journal articles admitted into evidence. "There are many cases of parents being unjustly accused," Terán said. "In my personal opinion, I think this is what happened."
The prosecution tried to dismantle the experts' testimony, quoting from the previous trial that Rodriguez' other children showed signs they had been abused: they were underfed, and were plagued by lice and bad teeth. One child had a burn on his arm, and another toddler suffered from venereal warts that required several surgeries to remove.
In the initial criminal trial, a Bandera County pediatrician testified that Ramiro suffered from malnutrition and wasn't growing normally, contradicting Clark and Terán's statements.
Rodriguez' hearing didn't generate the fanfare of Yates' trial but there are similarities in both: a portrait of a wife overwhelmed by a large family, living under the thumb of a controlling husband. In both cases, the court has not held the husband to the same standards of responsibility.
Even though Rusty Yates continued to impregnate his wife, even after it was apparent she was incapable of coping with a large family, he has been painted as the compassionate breadwinner, a victim of his wife's mental illness. Noel Perez, who sent Rodriguez' wages from her nursing home job to his second wife in Mexico, cut a deal and is serving only 25 years for child endangerment — he could be out in half the time. And while the Yates' family lived for awhile in a converted bus, the Rodgriguezes called home a one-room goat shack that didn't have running water.
Perez' control over Rodriguez likely prevented her from taking Ramiro to the doctor. Consuelo Rodriguez testified that she offered to pay for the doctor for Ramiro, "but Tina just shook her head no. I knew what that meant. That she had to ask her husband before going to the doctor. She was always asking his permission. When around him, her head down wouldn't even say hi to us in the grocery."
At last week's hearing, Zuflacht also criticized Rodriguez' original attorneys, Michael Collins and Bruce Perkins for not fully exploring starvation as a medical issue. "There is no explanation for why these lawyers didn't pursue the causation of death. There was no strategic explanation. It's unethical and bad lawyering."
After seven-and-a-half hours of testimony, Judge Steven Ables denied the motion for a new trial, commenting that the new evidence, which although he said he found compelling, could "possibly," but not "probably" sway a jury to decide a different fate for Rodriguez.
"We have new evidence that is probably true," Ables said at the end of the seven-hour hearing. "But can't get to the level of disbelief of Dr. Kellogg `the Bandera County pediatrician` and side with the other two."
Zuflacht will now take the case to the state Court of Appeals.
"Lesser offenses could have been offered," Zuflacht said. "She might be sentenced for something else, but not capital murder."
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