SPRINGFIELD, Mass – The state's highest court ruled Tuesday that the state can withdraw life support from an 11-year-old girl who was badly beaten, allegedly by her adoptive mother and stepfather.
Haleigh Poutre, of Westfield, was hospitalized in September after she was allegedly kicked and beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat.
The girl's stepfather, Jason Strickland, asked the Supreme Judicial Court last month to block the state from taking her off life support, arguing that he was the girl's "de facto" parent. He is already charged in her beating and if she dies, could face a murder charge.
The adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, who was also Haleigh's aunt, was also charged in the beating and was found dead alongside her grandmother in a possible murder-suicide less than two weeks later.
The state Department of Social Services has custody of the girl and wants to remove her from life support, citing opinions from her doctors that the girl is in a permanent vegetative state.
A juvenile court judge granted the state's request to disconnect Haleigh's feeding tube and ventilator, prompting Jason Strickland to appeal to the SJC. Doctors had said Haleigh would die within a few days without the feeding tube.
But in its ruling, the court said he had offered no evidence "that his participation in (Haleigh's) life was of a loving or nurturing nature."
"Obviously we're deeply disappointed," said Strickland's lawyer, John Egan. "They decided the case on the most narrow grounds possible." No decision had been made on whether the case would be taken any further, he said.
Haleigh's biological mother, Allison Avrett, said Tuesday: "I'm in complete shock at this point. My mind is running with things." She has said she favors removal of life support, because the girl has suffered enough.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services had no immediate comment, and Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, who is prosecuting Strickland, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Haleigh was adopted by her aunt about five years ago after Avrett moved to Virginia with a new boyfriend. Jason Strickland, who never formally adopted the girl, argued that as the stepfather, he should be considered a de facto parent and allowed to have a say in whether she lives or dies.
Egan insisted his client wasn't motivated by the chance he could be charged with murder if the girl dies.
"We should be coming down on the side of life as opposed to death," he told the justices during last month's hearing.
But the SJC said in its ruling that it was impossible to consider Strickland's intentions without also taking into account the criminal charges he might face if she dies.
"To recognize the petitioner as a de facto parent, in order that he may participate in a medical end-of-life decision for the child, is unthinkable in the circumstances of this case," the SJC said.