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Man sentenced for injuries to toddler

Posted on Thu, Sep. 09, 2004
By Melody McDonald
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

FORT WORTH - A 29-year-old White Settlement man has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for violently shaking his former girlfriend's 2-year-old daughter, causing permanent brain damage.

Jurors in state District Judge Everett Young's court deliberated about five hours on Tuesday before assessing Christopher J. Hernandez's punishment for injuring Hannah Love Harley, now 5.

On Friday, the panel deliberated about three hours in finding Hernandez guilty of recklessly causing injury to a child, a charge that carried a punishment range of two to 20 years in prison. He could have received probation.

"Needless to say, I am very pleased with the jury's verdict" said Phelesa Guy, who prosecuted the case with Sheila Wynn. "We were just very glad that the jury held him accountable for this tragic incident.

"He reduced Hannah from a lively little girl to one who will never, ever have a normal life."

Defense attorney Francisco Hernandez Jr., who has filed a notice of appeal, said that Hannah's injuries were caused by an accidental fall at the playground.

"We're obviously disappointed, but the jury made their decision and we will have to live with it," he said. "It should be noted that the jury did not find that the injuries were inflicted knowingly. They convicted him of the lesser offense of recklessly causing injury to a child."

Officials have said that Hernandez was caring for the toddler on Nov. 7, 2001, while her mother was at work. A distraught Hernandez called the woman and told her that her child had run into a door and banged her head, and she needed to rush home.

The couple then drove the unresponsive child to the hospital, and police were notified. Officials said it appeared as if the baby, who had bleeding on her brain and in her eyes, had been shaken and struck against an object.

The child probably would have died if she had not been taken to the hospital, officials said. Emergency brain surgery was performed, and Hannah spent more than two months in the hospital.

"When she came to, she was like a newborn baby in a 2 1/2-year-old body," said Jim Harley, Hannah's grandfather, who, along with his wife, cares for the child. "She couldn't use her right limbs at all. After a few weeks, we taught her in the hospital how to roll over. That was a big event."

Guy, the prosecutor, said a doctor testified that Hannah is partially paralyzed on the right side of her body and is behind in her motor, language and social skills. She also has a seizure disorder.
"She is a 5-year-old operating at a 3-year old level," Guy said. "Someone is going to have to take care of her for the rest of her life."

Hannah's grandparents have created a Web site devoted to her and to educating the public about Shaken Baby Syndrome, a term used to describe the symptoms resulting from violent shaking or striking the head of an infant or small child. Most victims show no signs of external trauma.

No agency tracks the number of victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome, but some estimates are that 2,000 children are shaken nationwide each year, said Bonnie Armstrong, co-founder of the Shaken Baby Alliance, a national organization based in Fort Worth.

"We don't have numbers, but what I can tell you is that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other nationally recognized organizations say abusive head injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in children under the age of 5."

"When people decide to abuse a child under the age of 5, the part of the body that takes the brunt of abuse is always the head."

Armstrong said that if a bystander were to witness a person violently shake a baby, he or she would recognize it as dangerous and likely to kill.

"If an average citizen saw this, they would say, 'Oh, my goodness, that baby is going to die,' " she said. "This isn't jiggle baby syndrome. This is very violent shaking that tears the tissue of the brain."

Officials said the abuse is often triggered by a baby's inconsolable crying.

"The people that do this, they look like you. They look like me," Armstrong said. "When you are frustrated, you put a baby down and walk around."