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As the prosecutor who handled the criminal case against Miguel Velasquez for almost a year, I know of a few very important facts left out or incorrectly stated in Sarah Godfrey’s story on Liliana Velasquez (“Sticks and Bones,” 2/8).
Miguel Velasquez was prosecuted for child abuse because, then and now, very serious evidence existed to believe he had committed a crime against his infant child. Although anyone can sympathize with the experience Liliana’s parents went through, it was Liliana with whom our office was most concerned. The parents have done a very good job portraying themselves as victims of the system, both criminal and civil. However, it was the behavior of the parents, the uncertainty of the diagnosis of the child, and the extremely suspicious nature of what happened—and later what didn’t happen—to Liliana that kept us committed to this case until it had to be “nolle prossed.”
Regarding the eventual “diagnosis” of mild osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) in Liliana, this was and continues to be a disputed issue. Over the course of this litigation, I spoke to the world’s leading medical experts on OI—the very same experts consulted by the defense. I learned that the genetic test, although well developed, does yield false positives in roughly one out of every 60 cases. As your reporter correctly states, an OI diagnosis stems from a combination of things, including clinical manifestations. Despite the contention of the parents in this case, Liliana showed and still shows few if any clinical signs of OI. Alice Velasquez contends that the child had blue sclera so prominently that she and her husband argued about what color Liliana’s eyes were. In fact, at least two experienced physicians who had seen many OI cases saw nothing of the sort. The one doctor who did note blue sclera admitted to me in a telephone interview that the tint was so slight it could be called a normal finding—and this doctor saw the child with the knowledge of the positive test in hand. Her X-rays showed no abnormalities. An OI diagnosis is especially hard to do when the patient is an infant, and this one appeared healthy and well-developed. The fact is, OI is often raised as a defense when the specter of abuse is considered. In Liliana’s case, there was almost nothing aside from the genetic test that bolstered that defense.
Even more disturbing were the types of fractures Liliana suffered in her parents’ care—and those she did not suffer in foster care. Children with OI normally exhibit fractures in the long bones, such as legs and arms, and fractures are often seen to result from activities such as running and playing, or being dressed or put in a car seat. In Liliana’s case, the fractures were on the ribs, and at a point on the ribs where injury is considered a classic sign of squeezing—in other words, a location highly specific for abuse, not accidental injury. What fractures did Liliana suffer in a safe, but rough-and-tumble, foster-care environment, especially as she was beginning to walk and play? None. Not one that we know of.
It is always a tragedy when a child is torn from her parents and a parent faces criminal prosecution for abuse. The decision to prosecute is not one taken lightly. My burden as a prosecutor is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a burden I could not meet in this case, and thus it is correct that Miguel Velasquez remains free. Ultimately, it was a judicial ruling that prevented us from using the defendant’s statements which finally caused us to drop the case. Without his statements, we could not prove with certainty that he was the person who had caused the injuries. Legally, we could no longer go forward.
But Liliana Velasquez, tiny and vulnerable, presented a case for us that led again and again to the conclusion that no innocent explanation existed for the injuries to this otherwise healthy and beautiful child. It was her welfare, and the justice demanded by her injuries, that compelled us to seek charges against Miguel Velasquez. It remains, despite the questionable assertions of Alice and Miguel Velasquez, a highly suspicious case.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney
City of Alexandria, Va.