Judge acquits Miami mother accused of breaking child’s skull
After a Miami baby was rushed to the hospital, doctors found the little girl had suffered a horrific fracture to the skull and swelling in the brain. X-rays revealed that 10-month-old Sophia had also suffered fractures in her arms and legs in the past.
Police and Miami-Dade prosecutors believed the child’s mother and sole caretaker, April Fox, beat her savagely over weeks leading up to Sophia’s emergency room visit four years ago. Florida child welfare authorities also considered Fox enough of a threat to legally strip Fox of parental rights to her two minor children. And Sophia, who can walk and talk despite the brain damage, has since been adopted.
But at Fox’s trial on charges of aggravated child abuse this month, her defense lawyer argued it was the toddler’s brittle bones, genetic disorders and an untimely fall that were to blame for Sophia’s injuries. Jurors ultimately could not decide and a mistrial was declared.
But instead of allowing prosecutors a second trial, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mark Blumstein took the unusual step of acquitting the 34-year-old mother himself.
“I’m really trying to get some picture of what happened that day,” Blumstein said late last week, according to audio of the trial. “I’m not surprised about what the jury came to, and someone beyond any human in the court will have to answer those questions. But in light of what I heard, and after hearing the presentation from the state, I don’t think it’s going to change with any retrial of this case.”
The decision stunned Miami-Dade prosecutors — it’s rare that a judge acquits defendants outright of major felonies. The acquittal also surprised defense lawyers and Fox, who began to hyperventilate loudly in court.
The State Attorney’s Office cannot appeal the judge’s acquittal, and Fox won’t get her children back.
“It’s kind of bittersweet. She won the trial but lost the war,” said defense lawyer Kellie Peterson.
Fox is also facing trial in Broward County, where authorities say she was practicing law without a license. Police say she provided legal work for people facing child support, criminal cases and foreclosures, then turned around and sued at least one for not paying her.
Miami-Dade police arrested Fox in 2015 after she took Sophia to Jackson Memorial Hospital.
She told doctors that she woke up and found Sophia with swelling on her face. The child had a fracture in her skull and bleeding in her brain. The baby, Fox told doctors and police, had fallen 10 days earlier from the bed but appeared unscathed.
At last week’s trial in Miami, prosecutors Jonathan Borst and Yara Dodin told jurors that doctors found other fractures in her arms and legs that had already begun to heal, suggesting the child had been beaten over weeks. The final traumatic blow that caused the brain swelling and fracture was inflicted just before the final trip to the hospital on May 30, 2015, they said.
Fox was “always with Sophia,” witnesses testified.
“She beat that little baby until her skull fractured. Her brain bled and her face and head swelled so badly that it alarmed everyone who saw her,” Dodin told jurors during closing arguments.
Defense lawyers pointed out that there were no witnesses to any abuse. They suggested that state experts failed to consider that Sophia might have suffered from one of several disorders that might have made her bones brittle, making her susceptible to fractures from everyday care. The disorders might also have dulled her sensitivity to pain.
“It explains why the baby was never kicking and screaming,” defense lawyer James DeMiles said.
Fox also took the stand in her own defense, repeating her story that the child had a short fall from the bed 10 days before she was rushed to the hospital.
Six jurors deliberated over six hours, but could not come to a unanimous conclusion.
At one point, they sent a note saying they were split, 4-2, although they did not say how many wanted to convict. One juror, who asked his name not be used, told the Herald that four jurors wanted to convict Fox.
He said the whole jury was troubled by Fox’s threadbare account of what happened to the baby and said her credibility “was very weak.” But the two holdouts believed there was reasonable doubt. “One jury member had a hard time getting past the fact that there were no eyewitnesses,” he said.
After the jury was dismissed late Thursday night, Judge Blumstein declared a mistrial.
The judge’s decision to acquit Fox himself surprised lawyers, even though he’d expressed doubts about the case throughout the four-day trial.
“This is four years since this incident happened. You’ve heard the court’s concerns over the course of this case. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this case and what happened. There are unanswered questions, no doubt.,” Blumstein told Fox. “None of us here were there, except maybe you and people that you know. Certainly none of the attorneys were there to know what happened.”