Comatose Girl Can Be Removed From Life Support, Court Rules

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 17 -- A severely abused 11-year-old girl can be removed from life support, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday, siding with social-service officials and against the girl's stepfather, who is charged with assaulting her.

The decision may end a months-long legal fight over the fate of Haleigh Poutre, who authorities say is in an irreversible coma at a hospital in Springfield, Mass. The court unanimously ruled that granting Haleigh's stepfather a role in her care "is unthinkable in the circumstances of this case."

Their decision referred to the girl by a pseudonym, but officials on both sides of the case said the subject was Haleigh.

Despite the ruling, the machines that provide Haleigh with oxygen and nourishment will remain in place for now, said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. She said the state would first have doctors reevaluate Haleigh, a process that could take days.

If her condition is found to be unchanged, "the worst will happen," Monteiro said.

It would be the end of a short and troubled life. Haleigh was taken from her birth mother around age 4 because of neglect allegations and was adopted by her aunt, Holli Strickland, in Westfield, Mass. But then, prosecutors said, she suffered horrific injuries at the hands of both her adoptive mother and her stepfather, Jason Strickland.

In September, Haleigh was taken to a hospital with broken teeth, burns on her chest and an injury to her brainstem that prosecutors compared to the trauma of a high-speed crash. She was left with "the least amount of brain function that a person can have and still be considered alive," according to the high court's ruling.

Holli and Jason Strickland were charged with assault and battery. Then, on Sept. 22, Holli Strickland was found fatally shot along with her grandmother in a case that police think was a murder-suicide or a double suicide.

When state officials sought to remove Haleigh from life support, Jason Strickland objected, saying he should be considered a "de facto parent" because he is the only remaining adult who is close to her.

The high court rejected that argument yesterday, ruling in essence that a de facto parent must also be a good parent, with a "loving and nurturing" relationship to the child. Granting that status to Strickland would be "an illogical and unprincipled perversion of the doctrine," the court said.

Edward J. McDonough, one of Strickland's attorneys, said his client has not decided whether to appeal the ruling in federal court.

Legal experts have said that Strickland could be charged with murder if Haleigh dies. But Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett, who is prosecuting the case, said in a statement Tuesday that he would review "whether or not Jason Strickland's actions or inactions had any connection with the actual death itself" before bringing any new charges.

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