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Appeal denied in infant assault case

The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals recently upheld the conviction of a Wailua woman sentenced to five years in jail for beating an infant to the extent that his brain protruded through the base of his skull and emergency room medics had to cut a hole in his cranium to relieve pressure caused by internal hemorrhaging.

Michelle Galvez, 43, was found guilty of second-degree assault last year following a non-jury trial in Fifth Circuit Court that featured testimony from doctors, paramedics and police describing inconsistencies in the story told by Galvez about how a 10-month-old boy under her care came to sustain head trauma and brain injuries so severe that nearly five years later, he remained unable to speak, walk or use the bathroom on his own.

The incident began on the morning of Oct. 24, 2013, when the infant’s mother, Fawna Kiefer, left her son under the care of Galvez, who was then operating a child day care center out of her home in Wailua. Kiefer later testified at trial that her child had a small cold the day before but was otherwise healthy, “happy and excited” when she dropped him off at Galvez’ home.

The child was developing normally and in the process of learning to walk and talk, according to Kiefer, who said her son had already learned small words like “milk” and “mama,” and was rapidly progressing physically. She testified that he “crawled with a purpose” and was just starting to walk, grabbing onto furniture for balance.

Then, later that afternoon, Kiefer got a phone call at work from an emergency medical technician asking for permission to insert a plastic tube into her son’s throat because he was not breathing.

Kiefer left work and called Galvez on her way out the door to find out what was going on. Galvez told her she wasn’t sure exactly, but said the child might have choked on his juice or phlegm and went limp in her arms. After more persistent questioning, Galvez told Kiefer the child fell back and hit his head while throwing a tantrum.

Kiefer drove to Wilcox Memorial Hospital, where she found her child convulsing and having seizures.

“His eyes were rolling back in his head,” she said from the witness stand. “He was very bloated. His chest was billowing outward.”

The infant was eventually medivaced to Oahu for further emergency medical surgery. For months, the child’s condition was so critical that doctors could not allow him to leave the hospital. When Kiefer eventually was allowed to take her son home, he was being fed through a tube in his nose.

During the 2018 bench trial, Kiefer testified that her son, who was 5 years old by that point, still was unable to walk, talk or eat without assistance. He remained partially blind, continued to experience multiple types of seizures and required 24/7 care.

During the ensuing investigation and throughout the trial, Galvez maintained the child inflicted the injuries on himself. She gave varying and often conflicting accounts to detectives, medics and doctors, who also testified at her trial. In addition to inconsistencies in her story, Galvez account of events was undermined by Dr. Kayal Natarajan, a board-certified pediatrician specializing in child abuse, who acted as the prosecution’s expert witness.

Natarajan reviewed the case and concluded the child had suffered “non-accidental” or “abusive head trauma” consistent with “being shaken or thrown by another party against furniture,” according to court documents. She further testified that the injuries sustained by the infant — a fractured skull, extensive hemorrhages in his right eye, cranial bleeding and swelling so severe that medics had to remove a piece of his skull — could not have been caused by a 10-month-old throwing himself down in a tantrum, as Galvez claimed.

Fifth Circuit Judge Randal Valenciano found Galvez guilty of second-degree assault — reduced from first-degree assault — sentenced her to five years in prison, and ordered her to pay over $500,000 in restitution to the state Department of Human Services.

Shortly after her conviction, Galvez appealed Valenciano’s ruling, asking the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals to examine three aspects of the state’s case.

In the appeal, Galvez’s attorney argued against the court’s decision to allow Natarajan’s testimony on the grounds that she was not qualified to speculate on the cause of the child’s injuries; alleged that Valenciano failed to follow legal procedures requiring him to question Galvez about whether anyone was forcing or pressuring her not to testify; and contended that the state did not present sufficient evidence to find her guilty of assault in the second degree.

The appellate court judges were not convinced. They issued an opinion upholding Galvez’s conviction on May 30. She remains in jail.

Kauai County Prosecutor Justin Kollar sent the following statement regarding the case in an email: “We are grateful to the ICA for conducting a thorough and accurate analysis of the trial record. Our thoughts remain with the child victim in this case and his entire ohana.”

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Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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