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Dublin: 3°C Friday 26 February 2021

The jury in the Cavan childminder shaken baby case cannot come to a decision

Sandra Higgins will be remanded on continuing bail.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

A JURY HAS failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a child-minder accused of causing serious harm to a ten-month-old baby.

Registered childminder Sandra Higgins (34) of The Beeches, Drumgola Wood, Cavan town, county Cavan had pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to intentionally or recklessly causing harm to the baby on 28 March 2012.

The trial heard that the child was fine that morning and during the day. Around 5pm Ms Higgins brought her to Cavan General Hospital where she presented with a brain bleed, detached retina and fractured ribs. She continued to have seizures for five days.

The prosecution alleged that the baby’s symptoms were consistent with a violent shaking. Doctors who treated the baby girl said it was highly likely that the injuries to the child happened while she was in the care of Ms Higgins and that the injuries were non-accidental.

Expert witnesses for the defence said the evidence was more suggestive of a head trauma and could have been the re-activation of an old injury. Ms Higgins told gardaí that she cared for the baby like her own children and that she never assaulted her.

This afternoon the jury of eight men and four women told the judge they were unable to reach either a unanimous or majority verdict.

The jury foreman handed in a note to the Judge Patricia Ryan stating:

We cannot reach a unanimous or majority verdict and do not believe we will do so with any more time.

It was day eight of the trial and the jury had deliberated for just under six hours.

Judge Ryan thanked the jury for their service before discharging them. She remanded Ms Higgins on continuing bail and listed the case for mention again before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court next Thursday, 2 July 2.

Questions from the jury

Before being discharged the jury had asked a number of questions. They asked to hear evidence of the vital signs as given by the consultant paediatrician who treated the child and from a UK neuropathologist called by the defence.

They also also the court to give another definition of the term “reckless”. Judge Ryan told the jury:

A person is reckless when they perceive the risk of that harm and ignore same by culpably proceeding with the action. So they fly in the face of reality.

Sandra Higgins. Pictured Sandra Higgin Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Seizures and vomiting

The trial heard that the child appeared healthy up to the date of her hospitalisation. At around 5pm on the afternoon the child’s mother received a call from Ms Higgins from the Emergency Department who told her the infant was having a seizure.

The mother said Ms Higgins said the child had been fine all day. “She said…[the child] had a sleep, she had her tea, she just sat down on the floor to play and vomited and had a seizure,” the mother told the court.

She said when she got to the hospital the baby was unconscious. The infant had a swelling between her eyebrows and she asked the accused about this.

Ms Higgins told the mother the infant had not fallen or bumped her head. She said that the bump between her eyebrows was from a different day.

The child was found to have extensive retinal haemorrhages in both eyes and had impaired movement on the right side of her body.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Alan Finan told the trial that it wasn’t reasonable to suggest brain injuries suffered by the baby happened before she was left with her child-minder.

Dr Finan said: “In my professional view it would not be a reasonable suggestion that she could have been normal for seven hours with those injuries already being incurred. It would not be a reasonable proposal.”

He said retinal detachment, retinal haemorrhaging and the subdural haemorrhaging were significant indicators of a shaking injury.

Dr Finan told the court: “The combination suggested to be me a shaking injury was a likely explanation.”

Differing accounts

Defence witness Dr Julie Mack, who specialises in paediatric radiology, said that the bleeding she identified on brain scans of the child was too small to represent the rupture of larger blood vessels associated with baby shaking.

She told Remy Farrell SC, defending, that the scans show the possibility of a re-bleeding of an earlier injury or pre-existing problem.

Doctors also found two rib fractures which were three to four weeks old and finger tip bruising on the baby’s back. Consultant paediatrician Dr Christopher Hobbs said that some of this bruising was “classic text book picture” of a shaken baby injury.

Babysitting arrangements

The court heard that in early 2012 there were a number of incidents of the child having bumps and bruises.

Her parents were concerned that Ms Higgins “wasn’t keeping a close enough eye” on the infant and began looking for an alternative child-minder. Two days before the child was hospitalised her parents told Ms Higgins that a relative would begin minding the child after that week had ended.

Mr Farrell said it didn’t make sense that somebody who had abused the child and possibly fractured her ribs would recommend the child be brought to the doctors, as Ms Higgins did.

The court heard that Ms Higgins was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh but moved to Co Cavan in her youth. The registered child-minder has previously worked in the Mulberry Bush Creche, Windy Arbour, south Dublin and in Rathfarnham, Dublin.

She told gardaí after her arrest on 13 April  2012 that she treated the child like one of her own.

Mr Farrell argued that the injuries were consistent with a trauma that occurred before the date of the alleged assault. “It’s blindingly obvious whatever event occurred weeks before could have caused a subdural haemorrhage,” he said.

He told the jury that there was not a “screed of evidence” to support what he said was the State’s “subtle implication” that Ms Higgins had caused older injuries such as finger tip bruises and fractured ribs.

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About the author:

Declan Brennan

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