BOSTON – A man accused of beating his stepdaughter tried Tuesday to convince skeptical justices on the state's highest court that he should have a say in whether the comatose 11-year-old is removed from life support.
Jason Strickland, who could face a murder charge if Haleigh Poutre dies, wants the seven-member Supreme Judicial Court to overturn a juvenile court judge's decision that he has no parental rights over the girl, who is now in state custody.
"Without intervention from this court, this child will die," said John Egan, one of Strickland's lawyers.
Haleigh was hospitalized in September with severe brain injuries. Police say she had been beaten by Strickland and his wife, Holli.
Less than two weeks after the couple were charged, Holli Strickland — the girl's aunt and adoptive mother — was found dead alongside her grandmother in a possible murder-suicide.
A juvenile court judge had granted a request from the state Department of Social Services in September to disconnect Haleigh's ventilator and feeding tube.
Jason Strickland, a 31-year-old auto mechanic, is trying to fight that ruling by arguing he should be designated as the girl's de facto parent because he lived with her for four years.
But that argument didn't fly with some of the justices. "That's not going to do it," Chief Justice Margaret Marshall said, saying the stepfather has no legal standing in the case.
Justice John Greaney expressed concern about putting the girl in the custody of her alleged abuser.
The justices did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.
Strickland's lawyers say the state has pushed for removal of Haleigh's life support, but no one has argued that the girl should live.
"There should always be someone who will argue for life," Egan said.
Virginia Peel, a lawyer for DSS, which has legal custody of the girl, said Haleigh's doctors have agreed she will not come out of her vegetative state.
"This is not about the right to life," Peel said. "This is about the circumstance under which this person is allowed to die."
Both of Haleigh's doctors agree she should be removed from the ventilator, but they are split over whether her feeding tube should be disconnected.
They have said that with her feeding tube alone, Haleigh could live as long as two months. Without any life support assistance, she would die much sooner, the doctors said.
Egan said Strickland should be allowed to have another doctor examine the girl, but Peel said that isn't necessary.
"When you have consistent medical opinions, why do you have to find a doctor who might — who might — challenge that," she said.
Haleigh was adopted by her aunt about five years ago after her biological mother moved to Virginia with a new boyfriend. Jason Strickland, who married Holli about a year after that, never formally adopted the girl.