- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Jurors on Wednesday were asked to set aside their sympathies and emotions after hearing a week of testimony from medical experts, police detectives and relatives who detailed the final moments of a 9-year-old boy who authorities say died as a result of child abuse.

Defense attorney Cindy Leos acknowledged during closing arguments that the December 2013 death of Omaree Varela was a tragedy, one that spurred New Mexico to take a hard look at the way law enforcement and child welfare workers investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.

But she said her client, Stephen Casaus, is not to blame.

Casaus, the boy’s stepfather, was caught in a wide net that authorities cast as they looked for answers, she said.

“Convicting an innocent man will not bring justice to Omaree. Convicting an innocent man will not make this OK,” she said. “What it will do is continue the injustice of what went on here.”

Casaus is facing charges including intentional child abuse resulting in death and tampering with evidence. The boy’s mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, is also charged and will be tried separately.

The defense recounted for jurors the incriminating statements made by the mother in the wake of Omaree’s death. She told a group of reporters that she was disciplining the boy and had kicked him the wrong way.

Prosecutors argue Casaus is also to blame.

They allege he lied to investigators the day Omaree died, saying first he was at a friend’s when his wife called him home because the boy had fallen. Later, he told police that he was getting high in a bathroom, while Omaree’s mother kicked and stomped the unconscious child.

Prosecutor Nicholas Marshall told jurors Wednesday that Casaus and his wife waited more than three hours to call for help while their son lay dying in a back bedroom. He said an autopsy later determined that the boy succumbed to internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma.

“He was lying there, nonresponsive, and what the defendant did was essentially doom him to die by failing to call 911, by failing to call for aid, by failing to drive to the hospital, by failing to tell the truth once the responders were there,” Marshall said. “That medical neglect caused Omaree to die.”

Witness testimony in Casaus’ trial came from doctors and nurses, detectives and relatives of the victim, including his 7-year-old sister. The girl told prosecutors her stepfather and mother punched and kicked the boy and that she witnessed the abuse after hearing her brother’s screams for help.

The defense raised questions about the girl’s testimony by calling its only witness, Albuquerque psychologist Elizabeth Penland, who testified that the memories of young children are not as reliable.

Prosecutors also showed a series of photographs that depicted a laceration to Omaree’s left eyebrow, a bite mark on his wrist, swelling under his abdomen, and bruising on his groin, forearm and back. There were also three scars on his chest and beneath his nose.

A pediatric nurse testified that the victim had more markings indicative of abuse than any of the hundreds of other patients she had treated in more than a decade of work.

The images led several people in the courtroom to weep, including Casaus.

Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors failed to present any evidence that would have shown had Casaus acted quicker or done something differently, he could have prevented the boy’s death.

Jurors must decide whether Casaus participated in the abuse and whether his actions allowed for Omaree to be tortured or cruelly punished.

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