Friday, January 19, 2001

Baby shaker adjudicated a killer

Cooper may get 10 years for crime

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A judge on Thursday found that John C. Cooper recklessly injured Ashley Smith when she was an infant, causing nearly nine years of suffering that culminated in her death in 1999.

        Ashley's birth mother, Thera Evans, and her adoptive mother, Kathy Smith of Milford Township, clenched each other's hands and cried as Butler County Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Sage declared Mr. Cooper, Ms. Evans' former boyfriend, guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

        “I think this is a tremendous tragedy, that a healthy, wonderful child should end up in such horrible circumstances,” Judge Sage said.

Child tube-fed
        Diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome — bleeding in her brain and eyes — Ashley never walked, rolled over or spoke, and had to be fed through a tube in her abdomen. The judge said Mrs. Smith was “beyond brave” for adopting Ashley and caring for her multitude of health problems.

        Sheriff's deputies handcuffed Mr. Cooper, 31, and led him to jail to await sentencing on Feb. 21. He faces up to 10 years. His supporters didn't comment; one helped his mother, who uses a cane, leave the courtroom as she sobbed loudly.

        In the case, Craig Hedric, a former defense lawyer, realized his first victory as an assistant prosecutor under Robin Piper, Butler County's new prosecutor. A father of two, Mr. Hedric admitted he found this child abuse case emotionally difficult.

        “It's very difficult because I see what Kathy goes through,” he said.

        “Had (Mr. Cooper) not done what he did, Ashley would be right here with us,” Mr. Hedric said.

        While Mr. Piper was an assistant prosecutor in 1991, he obtained a child endangering conviction against Mr. Cooper for causing Ashley's injuries. “This case is a good example for those who think that shaken baby syndrome does not exist,” he said.

Doctors convincing
        Mr. Hedric, who had only two weeks on the job to prepare for the trial, credited Hamilton Police Detective James Cifuentes for bringing the case together, including coordinating testimony of four busy physicians.

        Judge Sage said the doctors' statements helped him decide “something happened” that caused Ashley to almost immediately become inconsolable and exhibit other symptoms after she briefly was left alone with Mr. Cooper in December 1990.

        The doctors also testified that had she not been brain-damaged and suffered other complications as a result, Ashley likely would have been able to fight off the pneumonia that killed her in October 1999.


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