The story that distraught Maria Mendez told doctors and detectives at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center seven years ago has never varied, not even on the day she rejected a chance at probation by refusing to say she'd killed her grandson.
Shortly before Christmas 2006, as she told authorities, one moment her strapping, 22-pound, 9-month-old grandson was on the sofa at her home in South L.A. while she straightened up and prepared snacks for four of her children — who would soon be home from McKinley Elementary School and a nearby continuation high school. The next moment, she found the baby, Emmanuel Martinez, facedown on the floor turning purple, and she screamed for help.
The baby remained in a coma for a week and was declared brain-dead on Dec. 20. Medical examiner Yulai Wang said the cause was "traumatic head injuries" leading to massive brain swelling, and ruled the baby's death a homicide. But Wang failed to take photographs of the brain damage — an omission that has come back to dog him.
Six months later, the unthinkable happened to the huge Mendez family of 10 children: Their kindly, graying, beloved mother, a widow and pillar of the family, was suddenly arrested for Emmanuel's murder.
Mendez was known for her almost daily attendance at a small, Christian church near her home. She was a volunteer at McKinley Elementary School, where her youngest, Daniel, then 12, was a student; and caregiver and best friend to her daughter Rocio, 14, who has Down syndrome.
But she was jailed for three years while awaiting trial, and on Dec. 1, 2009, she was found "guilty of assault on a child causing his death." The jury was hung on the question of whether Maria Mendez was a murderer.
During the trial, teenage Rocio, who cannot speak, continually pointed to the mother she had not seen in 2½ years. "She was pointing like she wanted to go with her," Raquel Mendez, Emmanuel's mother, recalls in an interview from Las Vegas, which was frequently punctuated by sobs.
Mendez had a chance at probation before her 2010 sentencing — if she'd admit during a prison psychiatric evaluation that she'd attacked Emmanuel. No, she said.
She firmly informed her court-appointed attorney, Vincent Oliver, that she would never live under the terrible — and false — cloud of life as a baby killer and felon. Oliver tells the Weekly that Mendez "is totally innocent," but he is still surprised that she refused to accept responsibility and say what the authorities wanted to hear. The mother of 10 could have been freed almost immediately for time served, Oliver suggests.
Backed by her children, including then–19-year-old Raquel, Mendez asked for mercy from Los Angeles Superior Court judge William Ryan. Ryan faced two starkly different choices: a minimum 25-year prison term or probation, plus time served. On Oct. 8, 2010, Ryan sentenced Mendez to 25 years to life in prison. She was transported to Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla to live among hard-core criminals.
The jury and judge believed a dramatic narrative, crafted by prosecutor Jodi Castano and supported by star witness Dr. Carol Berkowitz, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics: that the 5-foot-tall, 52-year-old Mendez became wildly enraged by Emmanuel's crying and shook him so hard — and possibly slammed his head against, or with, a hard object — that the baby died from brain trauma. In her rage, she may have smothered him, too, Castano added, perhaps pressing the baby's face into the carpet.
Berkowitz testified that Emmanuel died from massive brain swelling after someone cut off his oxygen for two to four minutes or, alternately, that he died because his brain was traumatized. Key to his death, Berkowitz said, was the "mechanism for the injury" — somebody had violently shaken the baby, a behavior that until 2009 was dubbed "Shaken Baby Syndrome."
Berkowitz told the jury: "It would be a significant force. Even one to two short, jerky shakes, not the type of movement where you're sort of gently moving the baby up and down, and not the kind that we often talk about when you're teaching CPR. ... It doesn't take repeated movement. One to two short, very forceful jerks would do it."
"It was all a lie," Raquel's older sister, Rebecca Mendez, tells the Weekly.
Incredibly, the Mendez jury never learned that esteemed doctors and researchers in the United States and Great Britain, suspicious about the use of Shaken Baby Syndrome to imprison an estimated 1,000 parents and caretakers in this country alone, were engaged in a heated scientific debate questioning the syndrome.
A growing body of research had discredited some key tenets of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Research by Dr. John Plunkett in 2001 proved that babies can suddenly die, hours or days after short, accidental falls; Shaken Baby Syndrome adherents had long denied this medical fact and now say the chances of it occurring are infinitesimal.