Day care operator's fate in jury's hands

02/08/2013 12:00 AM

02/10/2013 2:09 PM

By the time jurors got the case Thursday afternoon, they had heard two strikingly different descriptions of Sheila Caceres.

Prosecutor Nancy Cochrane portrayed the 32-year-old former day care operator as a lying schemer who was more concerned about her reputation and her business than the life of Avin Rominger, a 10-week-old infant who died in her care Feb. 23, 2011.

Defense attorney Joe Welch countered that Caceres was so good with children that some loved her more than they loved their own parents, a woman so devoted to her wards that she "would take a bullet for a child."

Now it is up to a jury of six men and six women to decide who Caceres really is.

On the eighth day of trial, the Sacramento Superior Court jury received the case Thursday afternoon and began deliberations. Caceres is accused of felony child endangerment and could face up to six years in prison if convicted.

To Cochrane, whose closing argument Thursday morning lasted more than 90 minutes before jurors who sat in stone silence, the case is simple:

Caceres found the baby in distress and, rather than call for help, placed him on his side in a portable playpen in an upstairs bedroom closet, rubbed his back and walked away.

She didn't call 911, and when detectives showed up, she lied to them and induced her 15-year-old daughter to lie, also, Cochrane said.

"We are responsible for what we don't do," she told the jury. "I'm going to ask you to hold Ms. Caceres responsible for what she didn't do.

"She didn't help Avin."

Avin's parents, Dave and Rachelle Rominger, appeared overcome with emotion as Cochrane spoke and their son's face flashed on a screen in the fifth-floor courtroom of Judge Sharon A. Lueras.

But Welch was having none of it. His 45-minute argument ridiculed the defense theory that Caceres ever could have ignored a child in need.

"A woman with more patience, I've never met," he said. "A woman with more maternal instinct, I've never met.

"And to think she would leave a baby in distress is absurd."

The coroner has been unable to explain why Avin died but has said medical intervention might have saved him.

Welch contends Avin died of sudden infant death syndrome and that nothing could have saved the baby.

He criticized the actions of a sheriff's detective who he said bullied Caceres after he discovered she had lied to him and claimed that Avin was sleeping downstairs when she found him.

He conceded that Caceres, who also faces a misdemeanor charge for violating regulations by letting infants sleep upstairs, did that to keep them from being awakened by other children.

"Guilty as charged," Welch told the jury.

Welch also cited one of his paid experts, who testified that Caceres lied because she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He told the jury that he was offended by Cochrane's criticism of him paying two experts $14,000 to testify for the defense, including Dr. William O'Donohue, who made the PTSD diagnosis 18 months after Avin's death.

"Dr. O'Donohue, he's a good guy and he tells the truth," Welch said. "I don't hire whores."

Cochrane followed Welch with a brief rebuttal Thursday afternoon, reminding jurors that they saw and heard Detective Darin Pometta's recorded interactions with Caceres and that he did not bully her.

Cochrane also noted that Caceres has, indeed, been diagnosed with PTSD and added, "It's traumatic when you leave a baby in distress and it ends up dying."

Caceres did not testify during the trial.

She remained at the defense table as the jury was led away and as the Romingers – who once were friends of hers – walked out of the courtroom into the hallway.

Pometta, who was on the witness stand for days during the trial and attended Thursday's closing arguments, caught up with them in the hall, then leaned over and hugged Rachelle Rominger.

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