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A $750,000 insurance policy, a dead infant and a 15-year-old case

Nearly 80 minutes into her testimony, Tiffany Paris was asked to identify two people in a photograph.

“My son,” she said quietly.

“And?” the defense attorney asked.

“The man who murdered my son,” Paris snapped.

Her opinion about the death was confirmed by a Montgomery County judge who ruled this week that the man, Moussa Sissoko, was guilty in the child-abuse killing of his and Paris’s 3-month-old son, Shane.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Mason’s ruling — after a complicated, two-week trial held in front of the judge, not a jury — came in a case that stretches to Shane’s death in 2001.

At that time, Sissoko was a 22-year-old father who, according to testimony, appeared to care about his son.

Behind the scenes, though, he was working to become the sole beneficiary of a $750,000 life insurance policy on Shane, according to the judge.

“I can’t explain human behavior. Nobody can explain human behavior,” Mason said Thursday in delivering his verdict. “And I think we all know enough, at this age in our lives, that you can’t judge by appearances.”

Sissoko had been convicted before in the death — in 2002 — and was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed, lost, and later asserted that he’d had ineffective lawyering during the earlier case. Last year, a different Montgomery Circuit judge, Ronald Rubin, agreed that Sissoko deserved a new trial because his original defense lawyer had failed to call a pediatric neuroradiologist as a witness to discuss Shane’s injuries or medical condition, and instead relied on a less qualified neuropathologist. Sissoko remained locked up pending the outcome of the new trial.

Rubin’s opinion underscored the medical debates at the heart of the case.

In Sissoko’s new trial, prosecutors said that he inflicted head trauma on Shane. Defense lawyers said prosecutors could not prove what happened and that Shane died from an accident or natural causes.

“This is a medical mystery,” an attorney for Sissoko, Robert Bonsib, told Mason at trial. “Killing his son was not his plan. His son died. He was as devastated as anybody by it, and he’s had to spend a long time in jail.”

Each side was able to present a case because there were no marks on Shane, or as Mason put it: “The trauma was insufficient to leave external evidence of the point of the impact.”

In the end, Mason concluded that medical evidence, along with the life insurance plan, showed Sissoko had planned and willfully killed Shane.

“The defendant inflicted abusive head trauma upon the deceased that was the cause of his death — by either shaking and/or causing soft impact trauma to the child,” Mason said.

Sissoko returned to jail and is set to receive a new sentence May 26.

For Shane’s mother, Paris, the judge’s verdict came as a huge relief. “Like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said after the hearing.

She is now 34 and has a 9-year-old daughter, Shanna. About three years ago, she said, she began telling Shanna about Shane.

“You have a baby brother,” Paris said.

She regularly visits Shane’s grave. On his birthday and at holidays, she will leave presents — a teddy bear, a kite, an Easter basket. “Stuff I think he’d like,” Paris said.

In 1999, she was still in high school in Montgomery County when she and Sissoko started dating. “My first real boyfriend,” she said.

In the fall of 2000, the two learned Paris was pregnant. A short time later, Sissoko went to Florida to attend college. He later asked Paris to terminate the pregnancy. “I don’t want you to have it anymore,” he said, according to court records.

Sissoko returned to Maryland, and on June 29, 2001, was at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring for Shane’s birth.

Sissoko moved in with Paris and Shane, and took a job at a lock and security company, according to court records. It was around this time, Mason said, that Sissoko began pursuing the $750,000 life insurance policy, naming himself as sole beneficiary.

On Aug. 18, 2001, a representative from State Farm told Sissoko that Shane would have to have a medical evaluation, prosecutors Deborah Feinstein and Sherri Koch wrote in court papers.

Sissoko made the arrangements, telling Paris a doctor would visit their home, but that the visit was related to a health insurance matter. When Paris questioned that, Sissoko told her he would cancel the appointment, but he didn’t — and arranged to have the evaluation done while Paris was at work, court files show.

Around that time, as Paris learned of messages left at their home from State Farm. Sissoko said they were related to car insurance and renter’s insurance.

In making his ruling, Mason spoke chiefly about medical evidence. But he also honed in on the life insurance.

“Any reasonable person is going to ask: ‘Why would you put a $750,000 policy on a newborn infant?’ ” Mason said from the bench. “It seems to make no sense, just on its face.”

Mason addressed what Sissoko had told an investigator years earlier: That the policy was a form of college savings plan. But the judge noted Sissoko was making $1,500 a month, yet was signing up for a policy that would cost him $150 a month.

“It frankly defies logic and reason,” Mason said.

In court papers, prosecutors said that on Sept. 15, 2001 — while Paris was at work — Sissoko was caring for Shane. Shortly after lunch, he laid him in a bed. Then, at 2:03 p.m., he called 911 and said Shane was unresponsive and bleeding.

“He has gone from a healthy, normal fine young baby boy,” Mason said, “to all of a sudden what is described as basically a comatose child who is not breathing and with blood coming from his nose.”

Paramedics took Shane to Holy Cross, and he was later transferred to Children’s National Medical Center. Shane never regained consciousness, according to prosecutors, and remained on a ventilator until it was removed after 10 days.

“He murdered my son,” Shane’s mother testified this year, “for a life insurance policy.”