A Carson City jury on Thursday found Justin Carrigan guilty of failing to get help for his 3-year-old stepdaughter, who was unconscious and not breathing inside his home last year. They found him not guilty of child abuse causing substantial bodily harm.
"I'm really happy," said a tearful Leaha Carrigan, who'd entrusted her daughter, Rochelle Ellis, to the care of the man she'd married just three months before the Sept. 27, 2010, incident. "This is the justice she deserved."
Justin Carrigan, 28, was out of work and home alone with Rochelle and his newborn son when, he told witnesses, the toddler lost consciousness in the bathroom, bedroom or living room.
But instead of calling for help, he attempted to do CPR, according to court testimony. Then he ran to a neighbor's home and asked someone to come back with him.
Once at his house, neighbor Serina Cottiero said, she saw Rochelle lifeless on the living room couch. Carrigan never offered an explanation as to what happened, said Cottiero, but she could tell the child wasn't breathing. Despite having no training, the 18-year-old woman attempted to resuscitate the baby and told Carrigan to run back to her house for a cellphone.
"But then he told me he already had a phone," said Cottiero.
Cottiero said she then told Carrigan to call for help because Rochelle wasn't breathing.
"He said he didn't want to call an ambulance because he'd spanked her the night before for peeing on him and she had a welt on her butt and he didn't want to get blamed," said Cottiero. "I told him that it didn't matter, that he still needed to call because she wasn't OK," she said. "He kind of procrastinated. I believe I said it a few more times, just talking over him, just telling him to do it and not listening to what he had to say." Cottiero estimated she spent five to 10 minutes trying to persuade Carrigan to call for help.
Eventually, she said, she lied to Carrigan about Rochelle's condition in an effort to sway him, saying the child was breathing. She said that's when Carrigan finally called 911.
The neglect charge on which the jury convicted Carrigan hinged on the fact that the child incurred irreversible brain damage because she was without oxygen for more than 13 minutes. Firefighter-Paramedic Torrey Riches said it took him no more than five minutes to get to the home, and he and a partner worked for eight minutes before successfully reviving the child. But she'll never be the same, prosecutors said.
How long Carrigan waited before summoning Cottiero is not clear, said Deputy District Attorney Dan Adams.
Rochelle spent the next five weeks in the intensive care unit before being transferred to a Las Vegas 24-hour child-care facility, where she now lives. Her mother has since moved there to be near her.
How Rochelle ended up in the condition she was in could not be determined, said Edwin Peters, an emergency room physician at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.
After scores of tests, doctors were unable to determine why the heart of a previously healthy 3-year-old girl would stop. And no other marks indicated she was physically abused.
"If there was a medical cause for this cardiac arrest of a 3-year-old, he would have found it," Adams said Thursday in his closing argument. "Ladies and gentleman, our Rochelle Ellis suffocated. That respiratory event caused her cardiac arrest, and that just leaves one conclusion ... and we'd rather not think about it. We would rather not go through life thinking that someone could lose control ... for maybe just a short time. We'd rather not live in a world inhabited by even a momentary evil.
"But that's what we're confronted with. There's no other explanation other than this man did something evil, for maybe just a minute, to that little girl. ... Rochelle Ellis was suffocated, and that defendant suffocated her."
Jurors apparently weren't entirely convinced. After deliberating for an hour and five minutes, the nine men and three women on the panel decided Carrigan was not guilty of child abuse with substantial bodily harm.
Assistant District Attorney Gerald Gardner, who tried the case along with Adams, said the not-guilty verdict on the second charge made no difference.
"The judge was only going to sentence him on one count," he said after court to Leaha Carrigan and her supporters, one of whom was holding Rochelle. "Both counts carry the same sentence," said Gardner.
Now 4, Rochelle is not able to speak, sit up or walk. Her motor skills are similar to an infant's.
Carrigan, who remains in custody, faces two to 20 years when sentenced Nov. 14.