For months after little Avin Rominger died inside her day care center in February 2011, Sheila Caceres suffered depression, grief and anxiety, a mental health expert testified Tuesday.
She suffered panic attacks, sleeplessness and symptoms so severe that it clouded her thinking, even leading to thoughts of suicide, Reno psychologist William O'Donohue testified during Caceres' trial in Sacramento Superior Court.
Finally, after being referred to O'Donohue by her lawyer last October, Caceres was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which O'Donohue said could have clouded her thinking and ability to tell the truth as early as Feb. 23, 2011, the day Avin died.
His testimony, coming on the sixth day of her trial on a felony child endangerment charge, was aimed at deflecting the prosecution's stance that Caceres lied to detectives in the hours after Avin's death and induced her teenage daughter to lie, as well.
O'Donohue's testimony also marked the most complete description to date of how Caceres reacted after 2-month-old Avin was found unresponsive inside her Garden Day Care Center in Mather.
"She told me about the death of the baby in her day care center," O'Donohue testified before Judge Sharon A. Lueras and a jury. "She told me that she reacted to that death with fear, horror, feelings of being out of control."
O'Donohue, who charges $450 an hour for work as an expert witness, said he was paid a total of $9,000 to assess Caceres and make time to testify on her behalf.
He is the second expert witness in two days the defense has brought forth to bolster its case that Caceres is not responsible for Avin's death. Another expert who was paid $5,000 concluded that Avin died of sudden infant death syndrome and that nothing could have saved the child.
But authorities contend that Caceres delayed calling 911 after finding the infant unresponsive and that she subsequently gave conflicting stories to detectives about where she found the baby in her home.
The coroner has said the baby's death is unexplained, but that he might have been saved by medical intervention.
Caceres, 32, faces up to six years if convicted on the felony count and a misdemeanor charge.
Prosecutor Nancy Cochrane wrapped up her presentation of the case against Caceres Tuesday, then spent much of the afternoon chipping away at O'Donohue's findings and questioning whether Caceres could have been lying or "malingering" when he assessed her.
Cochrane noted that Caceres had seen a Kaiser psychiatrist for some time after Avin's death but had not been diagnosed by that doctor with PTSD until O'Donohue came to his conclusion and recommended in a January report that "she seek immediate professional help."
Cochrane had sought to exclude or limit O'Donohue's testimony, and in a morning session outside the presence of the jury, she noted that she has had dealings with him at least three previous times.
She added that the bulk of his testimony as an expert witness is spent working for the defense in child molestation cases.
Under questioning later by Joe Welch, Caceres' defense attorney, O'Donohue insisted that he would have reported accurate findings about Caceres' mental state – and whether she tried to mislead him during his diagnosis – regardless of who hired him.
"I don't like being lied to," he said. "I don't like being manipulated, that's a serious matter."
Caceres owned the highly regarded child care center until Avin's death. She subsequently accepted a lifetime ban by the state on operating or working at a day care but she maintains she did nothing wrong.