A jury recommended Tuesday that a 27-year-old James City County man spend two-and-a-half years in prison after finding him guilty of abusing his 3-month-old daughter when he stuck a finger down her throat, bruising her tonsils and causing a laceration.
Williamsburg-James City County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Maureen Kufro described the incident as a traumatic episode perpetrated by Robert Earl Haas IV, a distant father who got angry when his daughter would not stop crying.
“The victim totally depended on him,” Kufro told the jury during her closing argument. “As she cried out for comfort, this adult, her own father, responded by shoving his finger down her throat.”
Kufro’s description of the incident clashed with that of Patrick Bales, Haas’ attorney. He framed his client as a father who tried to administer first aid when his daughter began coughing up blood. He said Haas was trying to remove by hand a hard and “plasticky” object lodged in his daughter’s throat.
“He was in an emergency situation and he had to make a decision fast, so he acted quickly,” Bales said. “It was his intention to save his daughter’s life.”
The incident occurred Feb. 8 at an apartment off Croaker Road near Norge where Haas lived with his daughter and her mother, who was at the time his wife. The mother began her time on the stand Tuesday by saying she was in the shower, getting ready for work, while Haas sat on the bed in the master bedroom where their daughter was lying near some clothes.
When she finished her shower, she heard her daughter crying. She asked her husband to take the 3-month-old to the living room, where she would attend to her momentarily. The cries soon turned to coughs, which were producing blood, prompting her to tell her husband she was going to call 911.
“He seemed angry and said don’t call,” the mother said, noting she called despite what he said. She later said Haas wanted to drive the baby to the hospital himself instead of calling for paramedics.
The James City County Fire Department dispatched an ambulance to the scene. Paramedic Amber Hallman took the stand after the mother, saying she arrived on scene to find Haas standing outside the apartment building with his cell phone while he smoked a cigarette.
“He seemed very nonchalant when he motioned where the mother and child were,” Hallman said.
She said she found the baby upstairs in “unstable” condition, prompting them to take her to Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center for treatment.
Kristin Ash, a registered nurse at the Mooretown Road hospital, said the baby required frequent suctioning to keep her airway open. She said Haas never mentioned the cause of the baby’s condition. The baby’s caregivers quickly decided to send her to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, where she could receive more specialized pediatric care.
Hallman said Ash stood near the door with his cell phone during the baby’s treatment at Sentara, while Ash said he turned on the television and began watching the Winter Olympics. She said she “didn’t see much emotion” from Haas when he was told the baby was being taken to Norfolk.
“It just wasn’t typical of a parent whose child is seriously injured,” Ash said, noting she called a nurse involved in the baby’s treatment at CHKD after the baby left Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center to let the nurse know about her concerns involving Haas and the baby. She said that was the first time she had ever made such a phone call in her career.
The jury then heard from Norrell Atkinson, a child abuse pediatrician who at the time worked for CHKD. She said doctors at that hospital used a small scope with a camera to look inside the baby’s throat, where they found the bruising and a 1.5-centimeter tear.
“Her injuries are the result of significant blunt force trauma to the back of the throat,” Atkinson said. “It’s an extremely painful injury.”
Atkinson said the baby required a feeding tube for two weeks afterward. She said Haas, who worked for more than two years as a lifeguard, said he performed a “finger sweep” of the baby’s throat after she started bleeding. She said Haas seemed withdrawn when he spoke with her at the hospital.
“Sticking anything down a child’s throat is not recommended by any medical profession,” Atkinson said.
Tina Sawyer, the supervisor of James City County’s Child Protective Services, said she interviewed Haas on Feb. 11. She said he told her he put his finger down the baby’s throat to induce vomiting to try to clear a “plasticky” object.
“He agreed it was a forceful event,” Sawyer said. She said Haas told her he “sucked at handling a young child.”
Bales did not present any evidence on behalf of Haas. He objected to the image of Haas as detached, noting he “broke down and cried” during the baby’s treatment. He said that when Haas realized the extent of the baby’s injuries, he said “it’s all my fault.”
“He had perfect intentions, he just had imperfect actions,” Bales said.
Kufro said Haas showed no concern for the baby, staying outside to finish his cigarette while Hallman went upstairs to treat her, a point Bales contested. She said that behavior continued at the hospital.
“He just wanted to keep his secret and watch the Olympics,” Kufro said. “Not until he knew the doctors were using the scope did he admit what happened. His baby was threatened with a life-threatening injury at his own hand, and he just sat in silence.”
The 12-person jury, composed of nine women and three men, took about two hours and 20 minutes to reach a verdict. The trial then entered the sentencing phase, where Kufro told the jury Haas had two driving under the influence convictions from 2007 and 2010, respectively.
Bales asked the jury to sentence his client to the low end of the two to 10 years he faced.
“There is nothing in his record to show he is a violent or bad person,” Bales said.
The jury found Haas guilty of one count of felony child abuse. When he is sentenced Oct. 1, Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Judge Michael McGinty, who presided over Tuesday’s trial, will have the option to potentially lower the sentence.
The jury also recommended a $1,000 fine.