Father, 25, pleads guilty in death of 2-month-old

Prosecutor will seek maximum 30-year term

March 06, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A father who had grown so annoyed by his infant daughter's crying that he punched and shook her over two days pleaded guilty yesterday to causing the baby's death.

Assistant State's Attorney Laura S. Kiessling said she will ask Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Nancy Davis-Loomis for the maximum sentence of 30 years for Rocael Vail, 25, of Brooklyn Park for child abuse by a parent that results in death.

"I wish I could ask for more time," the prosecutor said.

Jennifer Nicole Vail, nearly 2 months old and weighing a little less than 15 pounds, died of extensive and severe head injuries, including five skull fractures, and the bleeding and torn tissue that signal shaken-baby syndrome.

A medical examiner's report noted nine fresh and healing rib fractures, indicating, Kiessling said, that the baby also had been hurt before Sept. 20 and 21, when Vail said he hit and shook the infant.

"He killed a completely helpless 8-week-old child, and you don't get a more innocent victim than a child," Kiessling said.

Vail is scheduled to be sentenced May 6.

Vail, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, answered the judge's questions yesterday through an interpreter. Diana Mulhearn, his former girlfriend and the mother of Jennifer and the couple's toddler, wept softly.

Assistant public defender John Gunning, Vail's lawyer, declined to discuss the case but said he expects the federal government to move to deport his client.

Kiessling told the judge that Vail admitted to police that on Sept. 20 he struck the baby with an open hand and punched her three or four times in the back of the head before putting her in her swing and giving her a bottle.

The next morning, Diana Mulhearn went to work, the prosecutor said. Vail admitted that when Jennifer cried he vigorously shook her "probably like 10 times."

He put her in her swing, then hit the right side of her head, causing the left side of her head to smack into the hard swing, Kiessling said. The baby stopped crying, and her eyes closed.

About 3:30 p.m., the baby's maternal grandfather, with whom the couple lived, returned home. The men argued because Patrick Mulhearn was angry that Vail apparently had finished off the beer in the refrigerator, and Patrick Mulhearn wanted Vail to leave, Kiessling said.

Patrick Mulhearn left a message for his daughter at work. She called back quickly, and he said he was going to take Brianna, the toddler, with him to get beer. Vail told her he was going out and would leave their infant home alone, Kiessling said.

Frantic, Diana Mulhearn got a ride home from a stranger.

Before she arrived, Patrick Mulhearn returned to find that Vail had left the infant alone on a bed. He put the baby in her swing.

After Diana Mulhearn arrived home, she picked up the infant, whose eyes rolled back in her head and who was unresponsive. They called 911. Jennifer was taken to Harbor Hospital, then transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she died two days later, Kiessling said.

Vail returned home shortly before 9 p.m. Sept. 21. Initially, he told police he had done nothing, but he later detailed hitting, punching and shaking his infant, Kiessling said.

The prosecutor said blood on a shirt of Vail's that police seized from the home was Jennifer's. Vail had told his girlfriend that he had had a nosebleed.

On Sept. 26, the prosecutor said, Diana Mulhearn found in the laundry the pink jumper Jennifer had worn to sleep Sept. 20. It also had blood on it.

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