WILLIAMSBURG — A James City man whom police say stuck his finger down his baby's throat in February was convicted Tuesday on a felony child abuse charge.
After more than two hours of deliberation. the jury of nine women and three men found Robert Earl Haas IV, 27, guilty on the sole felony count. The members returned a sentencing recommendation of 21/2 years in prison and a $1,000 fine less than 15 minutes later.
Over the course of the nearly eight hour trial, defense attorney Patrick Bales argued the Feb. 8 incident was a first-aid attempt gone wrong. He said at closing that Haas had "perfect intentions and imperfect actions" when he believed his daughter was choking. Haas did not testify.
Maureen Kufro, assistant commonwealth's attorney, told the court that as the 3-month-old girl cried out for comfort, Haas responded by "shoving his finger down her throat." She recounted witness testimony that Haas told the child's mother not to call 911 when the girl was coughing up blood, and did not tell anyone until days after the incident that he had stuck his fingers down the baby's throat.
"If help is what he was trying to give her," Kufro said, "help is what he would have tried to get her."
Danny Hunt, the child's mother, testified on the day of the incident that her daughter was napping on the bed while she took a shower. She said she asked Haas to take their little girl into the living room while she got ready for work.
"After a minute or two, I heard her start to cough," she said.
As Hunt got to the living room she saw her daughter in Haas's arms coughing up blood, according to her testimony. She said Haas told her not to call 911, noting his tone was angry, but she called anyway.
Amber Hallman, a paramedic in James City, testified that when the ambulance arrived she found a man standing outside of the apartment building smoking a cigarette. She said Haas told her the baby was upstairs, describing his demeanor as "nonchalant."
She told the court the baby had dried blood on her forehead, around her lips and inside her mouth. She added that, when laid back, the baby's breathing became labored.
Kufro questioned Hallman about what steps to take if it's believed a baby is choking. Hallman said at no point would you stick a finger down a child's throat is appropriate action.
Haas didn't say anything about why the baby was coughing blood until the couple arrived at the hospital, according to Hunt. Bales asserted that because Haas went downstairs to wait for paramedics then drove separately to the hospital that he did not have an opportunity to tell Hunt what happened.
Kufro said paramedics were at the apartment for seven minutes and during that time Haas did not what caused the baby to begin coughing up blood.
Hunt said Haas told her at the hospital he thought their daughter was choking on something and tried to clear her airway, according to Hunt's testimony. She added that he told her the baby was bleeding before he attempted to clear the child's airway.
Kristin Ashe, a registered nurse at Sentara Williamburg Regional Medical Center, said she was assigned as the baby's primary nurse Feb. 8 when she arrived at the hospital. She said the baby was making gurgling sounds and needed her throat suctioned about every 15 minutes.
The child's mother and father, whom she identified as Haas, were present, Ashe said. Ashe recalled the mother was tearful when the baby was transferred to Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, but Haas was unemotional.
Hunt said that at the time of the transfer, there was still no indication of what had caused the bleeding.
Dr. Norrell Atkinson, a former child abuse pediatrician at CHKD who was qualified as an expert in court, said she saw the 3-month-old girl Feb. 9 after she was transferred. She said the baby presented as unstable in the emergency room and began developing a fever during her first night there.
A diagnostic procedure, in which the baby's throat was "scoped" with a small camera, revealed the root cause of the bleeding as a 11/2 centimeter laceration to the throat muscle, Atkinson said, calling it a significant injury. She said the injury was the result of blunt force trauma to the back of the throat.
Atkinson explained that the injury was significant because the throat muscle has to be tough enough to protect people from sharp things that inadvertently swallow, such as bones. Asked by Kufro if the baby could have inflicted those injuries on herself, Atkinson said "absolutely not."
Hunt told the court that while at CHKD Haas became nervous, saying to her, "it's all my fault." She said he later admitted he thought the girl was choking and stuck his finger down her throat. Hunt noted she then told her daughter's doctor.
Asked by Kufro if it was days later that Haas was crying and "torn up" over what had happened, Hunt said yes.
Tina Sawyer with James City County Social Services said on Feb. 11 Haas recounted the incident, remarking he felt the baby was choking.
She testified he told her he stuck his finger down the little girl's throat to induce vomiting. Haas told her he felt a round, "plasticy" object in the baby's throat, Sawyer said. She said when he was asked by a police officer if the motion was forceful, Haas said yes.
He later said he was attempted to perform a "finger swipe" to clear the blockage, Sawyer said. She added that Haas stated sticking his finger down the baby's throat is what caused her to bleed.
Haas will be formally sentenced in October.
Robertson can be reached at 757-345-2342.