Prosecutors with the Merced County District Attorney's Office said Thursday they've decided to file murder charges against a 23-year-old man accused of killing his 7-month-old son.
Michael Burell was arrested Sept. 9 after Merced police arrived at his East Santa Fe Avenue apartment and found the baby, Jacob Burell, unresponsive. Jacob was declared brain-dead a few days later, and he was removed from life support Tuesday.
When Burell was booked into the jail, he was being held on suspicion of manslaughter and child endangerment. After the district attorney's office reviewed the case, however, prosecutors felt the murder charge was warranted, along with a count of felony child abuse causing death. "As we got closer to our case, we decided there was enough (evidence) to file a murder charge," said Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold.
If convicted of those charges, Burell could spend the rest of his life in prison.
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Dressed in an orange and white jailhouse jumpsuit, Burell appeared briefly in court Thursday for an arraignment hearing, where he pleaded not guilty. Burell will be represented by the Merced County Public Defenders Office.
He expressed no emotion during the hearing.
Officers went to the residence after receiving a call from the child's mother, 23-year-old Ashley Nicole Sarkis. The mother told police the child wasn't breathing. Police noticed a bruise on the child’s forehead and bruising under his eyes.
Burell claimed during interviews with police he'd placed his son in his playpen while the mother was away from home. Burell claimed the baby was having trouble breathing a short time later, police said.
Burell also maintained the child had fallen by accident two days earlier. Sarkis, the child's mother, told officers she'd been at Merced College when the child supposedly fell. During that time, Burell had been looking after the child. When she returned home, Burell told her about the child falling down while trying to climb into his walker, hitting his head on a toy. The parents said the child appeared unhurt from the fall and wasn't taken to the hospital.
Children's Hospital Central California doctors who examined the child concluded the injuries were severe and probably due to shaken baby syndrome.
Burell remains at the Merced County jail without bail.
Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@ mercedsun-star.com.