Cruz trial experts dispute cause of newborn's death

Was the baby Jessica Cruz gave birth to nearly three years ago in the restroom of a Streamwood Salvation Army store born alive?

A Cook County assistant medical examiner says yes. A defense expert says no. Jurors will consider that conflicting testimony during deliberations that began Monday at the Rolling Meadows courthouse.

Prosecutors say the then 19-year-old Hanover Park woman strangled the newborn boy, wrapped him in a plastic bag which she tied around his throat and left him in a restroom trash can hidden by toilet paper.

They say Cruz kept her unwanted pregnancy a secret from everyone except the baby's father because she feared her mother's reaction.

Defense attorneys say Cruz did not murder her baby.

“Birth does not necessarily mean life,” said Cook County Assistant Public Defender Deana Binstock, who said Cruz's “delivery was unsuccessful and her baby was not born alive.”

“If there is no proof of live birth, you can't find Jessica guilty of killing her baby,” Binstock said.

Dr. Janic Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist testifying on behalf of Cruz, said not enough evidence exists to determine if the 6-pound, 11-ounce boy survived the birthing process.

Ophoven's testimony contradicted that of Cook County Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar. Air in the baby's lungs, confirmed through X-rays and a float test, indicated he had taken breaths and was born alive, said Arunkumar, who listed the cause of death as strangulation and the manner of death as homicide.

Ophoven disagreed. She listed the cause of death as “undetermined.” She testified the float test is not sufficient to diagnose live birth. That requires viewing the lungs under a microscope, which she said she did. Ophoven also pointed out that the X-ray used to compare the lungs of the full-term Baby Cruz was an X-ray of a stillborn, premature baby in the first or second trimester.

She said she found alveolar sacs within the baby's lungs “predominantly closed,” meaning the baby had not taken a “breath of life” to sustain himself. Such evidence is “inconsistent with a live birth,” said Ophoven, who testified the baby might have succumbed to perinatal asphyxia as he moved through the birth canal.

Sometimes “even in the best of cases, in hospitals ... with good prenatal care, babies just don't survive the labor and delivery process,” Ophoven said.

In her closing argument, Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Susanne Groebner showed jurors heartbreaking photos of the trash can, the newborn covered in the white trash bag, and finally the tiny, black-haired infant himself, his eyes closed tight and his hands in tiny fists.

“This isn't a bassinet, this is a garbage can where people throw things away they don't want. This isn't a baby's blanket, it's a garbage bag,” Groebner said, urging jurors to find Cruz guilty of first-degree murder.

Groebner also referenced a lesser charge, involuntary manslaughter, which jurors may also consider, saying “what we have here is more than a reckless act.”

Don't feel sorry for this woman, she said referring to Cruz, a petite brunette in pigtails, “hold her responsible for all of her actions when she left this baby discarded like garbage.”

Jury deliberations will continue Tuesday.

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